For much of the past year, traffic has flowed smoothly through the “mixing bowl,” a complex interchange in Southfield, Michigan, where an assortment of interstate highways and major local roads merge together. Not anymore.
Seemingly by the day, traffic is returning to pre-pandemic levels. First there were tie-ups at the peak of rush hour. Now, they can show up almost anytime during daylight hours. And the overtaxed interchange isn’t unique.
Across the country, traffic is rapidly rising as pandemic restrictions are rolled back and more U.S. workers are called back to their offices. While Americans may crave a sense of “normalcy,” there are costs, including more traffic jams, more fender benders — and higher fuel costs.
While data lags a bit, the Federal Highway Administration indicated U.S. drivers clocked 55% more miles in April than they did during the same month last year. The comparison is, of course, extreme. Spring 2020 marked the start of pandemic lockdowns in most of the country. Even automotive assembly plants closed for a two month period.
All told, Americans drove 256.5 billion miles this April, an increase of 90.6 billion miles more than the year earlier.
More traffic, but not back to normal
The country still isn’t back to normal, certainly not on the roadways, anyway. Travel was 20 billion miles below what motorists clocked in April 2019, according to the FHA.
How that will change in the coming months is uncertain. American factories are humming again, with more and more stores, restaurants and other retail establishments getting back to normal. The big uncertainty is what happens in American offices.
In the Motor City, General Motors and Ford earlier laid out highly flexible plans, but expected to see many white-collar employees continue to work from home or other remote locations for the indefinite future. Ironically, that can be seen right alongside the mixing bowl where many of Southfield’s office towers now stand largely empty.
Facebook, Nationwide Insurance, Reddit and others — notably including many Silicon Valley firms — have all but told staff to stay home, though that could change as such firms evaluate the long-term impact of remote work.
Gas prices on the rise as demand increases
Even so, traffic keeps growing and, with it, gas prices have been surging. Even in Texas, regular is now approaching or exceeding $3 a gallon — as much as triple what fuel in some parts of the country was priced at a year ago.
There’s also the concern that crashes could continue to rise. Traffic deaths soared to 38,680 last year, up 2,600 compared with 2019. That was despite the fact that Americans drove 13% less for the full year. Measured on a fatalities-per-100-million-miles-driven basis, 2020 was the worst year since 2007.
A variety of factors catch blame, including drinking and drug use, as well as distracted driving. But authorities also point to a surge in highway speeds, especially those operating at extremes, topping 90 and even 100 mph. While denser traffic might make it more difficult to speed, safety experts worry that other bad behaviors, such as weaving between lanes, could keep crash and fatality numbers higher than pre-pandemic levels.