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Not the 'carmageddon' that some predicted, traffic jams in some cities are back

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Those of us still working from home might not have noticed, but traffic jams are back. Congestion in most cities, while still below pre-pandemic levels, is getting worse, and not just at rush hour. That's because the pandemic has altered traffic patterns. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: One of the few bright spots during the early days of the pandemic was, when you had to drive somewhere, there were very few others on the road. But now...

BOB PISHUE: Traffic is back, but it's not back like we remember it.

SCHAPER: Bob Pishue is a transportation analyst for INRIX, a data analytics firm which just released its annual Global Traffic Scorecard. It shows that the typical driver in the U.S. wasted 36 hours this year sitting in gridlock. While that's still 43% below pre-pandemic congestion levels, Pishue says car and truck traffic has been building again for some time now.

PISHUE: It's been slowly increasing. People have likely noticed kind of the typical hot spots in your city are sometimes in the afternoon just as congested as they were before COVID-19.

SCHAPER: The INRIX report finds that drivers here in Chicago have lost the most time sitting in traffic in the country - 104 hours on average. That's 13 eight-hour workdays wasted. And I'm one of those drivers. I'm in my car, stuck in bumper-to-bumper gridlock on Interstate 290, the Eisenhower Expressway, one of Chicago's most choked corridors. And it's only midafternoon, not even rush hour, an indication of how the pandemic has changed when and where we drive.

PISHUE: So travel patterns have definitely changed...

SCHAPER: Again, INRIX analyst Bob Pishue.

PISHUE: ...With the adoption of more and more telecommuting and, you know, hybrid office work, things like that, staggered kind of school schedules. All of those things are kind of reshaping how congestion appears on a roadway.

SCHAPER: Pishue says there's more congestion now during middays and on weekends and not so much during the morning rush. And fewer commuters are going into downtown areas while suburban congestion is growing.

The findings don't surprise transportation planners like Erin Aleman, who heads the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. She says that many of those who are now telecommuting may never go back to the office.

ERIN ALEMAN: We're seeing places in our region that have high tech corridor jobs, where we think upwards of 35% or greater of employees will be working from home. And so that really shifts, you know, where we need to be investing our transportation dollars.

SCHAPER: Aleman says transit ridership remains significantly lower than before the pandemic. And with new corridors of congestion developing, she says it's time to rethink some old transportation policies.

ALEMAN: If we don't make a concerted effort to address and alleviate some of these congestion challenges using transportation demand management strategies, thinking about things other big cities have, like congestion pricing, I think we will continue to see congestion get worse.

SCHAPER: P.S. Sriraj, who heads the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois Chicago, says addressing the changing traffic patterns means transportation planners need to better tie roads, transit and other modes together.

P S SRIRAJ: Unfortunate reality of all of this is that the funding is siloed, and that's a deeper problem. When your hands are tied with respect to where you can spend your money and there's not a whole lot of latitude to move it around, there's only so much improvement that can be made.

SCHAPER: The recently signed trillion dollar federal infrastructure bill doesn't provide as much funding flexibility for multi-modal solutions to traffic gridlock as many urban transportation planners had hoped at. That may mean post-pandemic traffic jams will get worse before they get better.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEDESKI, MARTIN & WOOD'S "MAMI GATO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.
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