Thursday, April 7, 2022

2 years after COVID, Wisconsin traffic is still lower, with a lot less people on the bus

Interesting report today from the Wisconsin Policy Forum looking at driving and commuting patterns in Wisconsin during the COVID era. And the Policy Forum tells us that Wisconsin vehicle traffic continues to be lower today than it was before COVID was a thing we had to deal with, which indicates that commuting patterns and everyday life may be permanently disrupted.

Comparing average daily traffic over the last year (April 2021 to March 2022) to traffic in the year preceding the pandemic, weekend traffic is down just 0.2%, while weekday traffic is down by 4.4% (see Figure 1). In fact, DOT data indicate that weekend traffic volumes have shown stronger recoveries than weekday volumes in each of the last 13 months, starting in March 2021. Traffic levels in Wisconsin’s most populous urban counties, as well as ridership on the state’s largest transit systems, show the likely cause is a reduction in the number of people commuting to work. Though weekday traffic may still further recover, the potential for a long-term shift should be considered when it comes to future road construction and transit route decisions.

The Policy Forum digs down into the traffic numbers, which reveals that after vaccinations became widespread last Spring, the decline in traffic lessened. But it’s still there, especially during what used to be peak commuting hours.
By March 2021 – when many Wisconsinites began to receive their first or second dose of COVID-19 vaccines – average daily volumes recovered to just 6.4% below March 2019 numbers. This was the first month in which average traffic volumes had not been down by at least 10% relative to the same month in the year preceding the pandemic (as our baseline, we use the 12 months running from March 2019 to February 2020). Since then, traffic volumes have remained below prepandemic levels in every month except September 2021.

However, the totals obscure a more complicated story. Over the last year (April 2021 to March 2022) and excluding holidays, weekend traffic exceeded prepandemic levels in six out of 12 months, including volumes that were 3.7% higher on weekends in January 2022 compared to January 2020. Meanwhile, there has not yet been a single month in which weekday traffic topped pre-pandemic levels.
Which shows that going out for weekend errands and leisure has returned near pre-COVID patterns (although where we're going might be a bit different), and that in-state travel isn't all that much different.

But there is a significant change in what types of vehicles are driving down the road. Because more people are spending more time and business at home, it takes those cars off of Wisconsin roads. At the same time, there is a greater need for big rigs to bring certain types of products to stores and homes.
In recent decades in the United States, car volume and vehicle miles travelled (VMT) can fluctuate but tend to increase over time. However, today, volume in Wisconsin appears to be only back to what it was at in 2015 or 2016, according to DOT data. That said, DOT notes that truck traffic is up notably (7% from March 2019 to March 2022). The increase may reflect an underlying shift in consumer spending away from services and towards goods during the pandemic: truck volumes have been above pre-pandemic levels in every month since December 2020.
Sure seems like trucks might be needing to pay more toward road repairs, since they're making up even more of the stress, eh?

While car traffic is lower, its decline is dwarfed by the plummeting in transit ridership that continues to this day.
In 2019, Wisconsinites rode on these nine transit systems a total of 48.5 million times – a number that represented a stark but gradual decrease from the 72 million rides they took in 2007. In 2020, that number plummeted to 26.4 million, a decline of 45.6% that is unrivaled by any other year of data. In 2021, bus ridership declined once again to 22.6 million, a decrease of 14.6% that was larger than any previous year-over-year decline other than the year prior.

Since the earliest months of the pandemic, Wisconsin saw its fewest reported COVID cases in June and July 2021; by this time, Pfizer and Moderna vaccines had also been made widely available to the general public. Still, in those two months, ridership on these nine bus systems was down 49.5% and 50.4%, respectively, compared to June and July 2019 (see Figure 3).

That collapse in demand (and related revenues) for a service that is still needed means that transit systems have had to be bailed out with added funding from the Feds. Three different rounds of COVID-era relief programs helped out in 2020 and 2021, and Wisconsin transit systems are also getting help from the infrastructure package that went through Congress a few months ago.
Wisconsin will receive more than $115 million in federal funding for transit projects this fiscal year, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced Tuesday….

The $115 million earmarked for Wisconsin will be split between the state government and local municipalities, according to FTA data. The exact breakdown of how funds will be spent has not yet been determined.

Several urban areas in the state will receive a portion of the federal funds to support their local transit agencies:
· Milwaukee will receive $32 million;
· $12.5 million is on its way to Madison;
· Kenosha will receive $123,725;
· Green Bay will bring in $3.4 million;
· and Appleton will receive just shy of $4 million.
For the record, I'm betting that $123,725 might just be for Kenosha's streetcar line, with their bus system getting a lot more than that (WisDOT likely needs to split that part up for the smaller bus systems).

As the Wisconsin Policy Forum alludes to, our transportation needs and usage is still quite different to how Wisconsinites traveled and (especially) commuted compared to the times before COVID. The one-time boost in funding from the infrastructure bill will help, but after 2022, we will likely need to adjust our spending and transportation planning to match how people may work and live in the post-COVID world. And recognize that our highways and transit systems probably won't be getting the help from DC that we've had in the beginning of the 2020s.

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