Following more than a year of widespread closures and work-from-home office policies, traffic is finally beginning to approach pre-pandemic levels on many roads in the Boston area, according to an analysis of traffic data by the Globe.
What’s more, the traffic patterns of Greater Boston have changed as drivers return to the road, with the region seeing more pronounced activity on the weekends and a longer, drawn out afternoon commute.
“Traffic, for all intents and purposes, is back to about 2019 levels on most roadways in Massachusetts at this point,” Highway Administrator Jonathan Gulliver said in a presentation to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation in June. Traffic data collected by Streetlight Data, which uses drivers’ phones to measure traffic volume, and MassDOT backs him up.
In the charts below, we analyze traffic levels from the first half of 2019 and 2021 on Interstate 95, the Massachusetts Turnpike, and Interstate 93, both north and south of Boston, to better understand the changing face of traffic around Boston.
Weekday traffic is still behind, but approaching 2019 levels
While traffic along many of the major highways is getting back to normal, weekday traffic along the Massachusetts Turnpike was still below pre-pandemic levels, despite a steady monthly increase through 2021.
At three locations along the Turnpike in Boston — at Market Street near the Allston-Brighton tolls, at Massachusetts Avenue near Fenway Park, and at D Street in the Seaport — average daily weekday traffic from April 1 through June 15 was still about 22 percent below 2019 levels, according to data from Streetlight.
The shortfall in Pike traffic persisted despite steady growth from February through June. According to monthly data from MassDOT, traffic along the Pike from D Street to Market Street grew by at least 47 percent and as much as 62 percent.
Traffic on I-93 for both the Northern and Southeast Expressways has returned stronger than on the Mass. Pike, but still fell short of 2019 levels. From West Street just north of Braintree back to the I-93 Turnpike interchange, weekday traffic along the Southeast Expressway ranged from 82 percent to 87 percent of pre-pandemic levels.
The same held true for the Northern Expressway, where weekday traffic was about 85 percent of 2019 volume beginning at the Zakim bridge and running north to Salem Street at Woburn.
On Interstate 95 around Boston, traffic also hovered around 85 percent of where it was two years ago, though some areas were even stronger.
At Route 3 near the Burlington Mall and at the Fall River Expressway near Blue Hills Reservation, weekday traffic was 87 percent of 2019. At Providence Highway in Dedham, traffic had returned to 88 percent of 2019. And north of the city in Wakefield, weekdays were back to 89 percent, highest among the seven locations shown in the data.
An evolving rush hour
Thankfully for most morning commuters, rush hour on the Mass. Pike, I-95 north of the city, and I-93 south of Boston hasn’t fully recovered from the COVID-19 slowdown of 2020. The same can’t be said for the afternoon commute, however.
“Post pandemic, morning rush hour is suppressed in a lot of areas, particularly urban areas, and then afternoon peak is definitely creeping back up, if not there already,” said Phaedra Hise, Streetlight’s director of content.
The result is afternoon traffic that at times exceeds pre-pandemic levels, but is also spread out longer throughout the afternoon.
For example, on Interstate 95 at the Northern Expressway, the pandemic-induced drop in traffic has disappeared during the 7 a.m. rush hour, with second quarter 2021 volume exceeding 2019. And like the Southeast Expressway, the afternoon peak on I-95 that began at 2 p.m. has now flattened into sustained traffic from 2 to 6 p.m.
Similarly, the 5 p.m. peak on the Mass. Pike has been replaced with consistent volume between 1 p.m. and 6 p.m.
Boston isn’t alone in witnessing this change. An analysis of hourly traffic volume in five major US metro areas by Streetlight found that morning and afternoon peaks in traffic were being replaced by traffic building gradually throughout the day toward a sustained afternoon high in a pattern called “peak spreading.”
Hise hypothesized that while more people may be working from home, lowering the morning rush hour volume, those individuals are still driving later in the day for other reasons.
“What we saw was, yes, morning rush hour is suppressed because fewer people are commuting. But that doesn’t mean people have stopped running errands,” Hise said. “The people that work from home are going out at noon, or out after lunch, to run a bunch of errands. Those trips, combined with the people who are going to work and coming home, could explain why afternoon rush hour has spread out a little bit.”
Weekday vs. weekend
After a year and a half of socially distancing throughout a pandemic, hourly travel data show that people are using all three roads on the weekend as much or even more than before.
On the Mass. Pike, Monday through Friday traffic was about 82 percent of 2019 levels for the second quarter during the 7 a.m. hour. Traffic peaks early in the day, and there’s a sustained peak throughout the early afternoon. But on the weekend, people are traveling even more than they were before the pandemic.
On the Southeast Expressway in Dorchester, north of Neponset Avenue, average daily weekend traffic during the second quarter reached 90 percent of 2019 numbers, bolstered by meeting or exceeding pre-pandemic levels before and after lunchtime. The weekday afternoon rush hour also shows a more sustained afternoon peak, with the road filling up roughly from noon to 6 p.m.
Weekend travel on I-95 north of Boston was stronger than the Southeast Expressway. Traffic was back to 93 percent of 2019 levels, reaching new heights and surpassing pre-pandemic levels from noon to 3 p.m.
A recent study offers insights into why driving habits may have changed. The 2021 Urban Mobility Report from The Texas A&M Transportation Institute, which studied more than 100 urban areas, found that during the pandemic, weekend travel delays represented a higher percentage than in 2019. David Schrank, one of the coauthor’s of the report, believes that trend is continuing.
“Early on, it was just ‘I gotta get out.’ Now, it’s a combination of ‘I still want to get out,’ but also, a little bit more traffic actually going to stores and things rather than having the groceries delivered to your front door,” Schrank said. “You’re also now throwing in people saying, ‘We’re just gonna take a long weekend somewhere.’”
Even as traffic patterns near a return to pre-pandemic levels, there’s still room for traffic to worsen even more, despite some employers shifting to a work-from-home or hybrid work environment.
According to a city of Boston survey released late last year, roughly 38 percent of commuters said they planned to drive alone to work post-pandemic, up from 23 percent before the pandemic. That shift could theoretically result in as many as 60,000 additional cars on Greater Boston’s roads each morning during the peak travel hour, based on city traffic figures.
Texas A&M’s Schrank says that’s a significant number, especially if all of those drivers are trying to use Boston roadways at the same time.
“It may affect this roadway more than the next one. It may affect this side of town way more than the other. It depends on where those commuters are coming from,” Schrank said. “Some of the interchanges that have been relatively in good shape may start to see that hour or half-an-hour of congestion again.”
But Schrank thinks that a full return to pre-pandemic traffic levels may still be months — or even a year or more away — with the recent surge in the Delta variant of COVID-19 and employers trying to settle on long-term work-from-home policies.
“I’d tend to say 2021 is out,” Schrank said. “Now, at the earliest, you’d say 2022, maybe. But I think it’s going to be beyond that because of all the employers and employees trying to figure [telecommuting] out.”
Dugan Arnett contributed to this report.