Is ‘rush hour’ returning to the Triangle as virtual work options diminish?


If you drive often. you’ve probably noticed you’re sitting in a lot more traffic than a year or so ago.

Now, data shows, traffic levels are nearly back to where they were in early 2020 – before COVID cases first hit our state, pushing many people off the roads as work went virtual.

“During the first part of the pandemic, it was like traffic evaporated,” said WRAL’s Brian Shrader.

As workplace commutes rebound across the state, the red lines on traffic maps and bottleneck backups show things are returning to normal. Commutes to offices are still down 10% from where they were in January-February 2020, according to the Google mobility reports. However, it’s the closest to the baseline we’ve seen since analyzing these reports for almost three years.

For instance, six months and a year ago – that commute number was 20% below the baseline.

Brian Mayhew, a state traffic engineer the NC DOT, says during the early days of the pandemic, roadways were quieter. Then, there was a shift in patterns – traffic was accumulating during different hours as people shifted their schedules. Now, the traditional rush hour is back.

The state’s most recent 2022 data shows the number of vehicle miles traveled is higher now than not only 2021 and 2020 but also 2019 … before COVID,

“I think there’s some relief that the pandemic is no longer the dominant factor in our society,” said Mayhew. “So I do get that sense that people have the freedom and flexibility to make the variety of decisions of what they need to as they go about their life. But nobody really likes sitting in congestion.”

Whether or not you’re sitting in that congestion really depends on where you live and work. Mayhew says I-40, 440 and 540 continue seeing the most traffic according to the state’s data.

Data from Durham and Orange counties shows people are a little slower to head back to the office. Wake’s return is slightly higher. Some counties, like Johnston, actually have more people commuting there now than at the beginning of the pandemic.

That’s not surprising to Mayhew.

“Those type of travel patterns in our high growth, suburban counties. Very, very persistent. Certainly, if you’re in those outlying areas, then you’re experiencing that commute into work,” he said.

He says, in general, traffic is worse during the middle of the week too – as some workplaces just require to people to in in the office for three days a week — so you’ll have to leave a little earlier on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday.


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