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Pandemic Effect: A Decline in Traffic Congestion Across Major Cities

By Fazil Khan

Mar. 11, 2021

Representative Image. Source: Flickr

Exactly a year ago, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). In his briefing on March 11, 2020, director-general of WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, had said that the agency was “deeply concerned by the alarming levels of spread and severity” of the outbreak.

The virus was spreading rapidly at that point in time even as the majority of cases recorded globally were reported in China where the virus first appeared in December of the previous year. A year later, at least 117 million cases have been confirmed, of which nearly 2.6 million infections have been fatal.

Stay-at-home orders and restrictions on non-essential movement amongst the general public were some of the first measures put in place by several governments around the world along with other precautionary measures such as mask mandates and handwashing.

Over the next few weeks, depending on the imposition and adherence to the safety measures, streets in many cities carried a deserted look, most notably in India where the government implemented one of the strictest lockdowns anywhere on the planet.

With less than usual movement on streets and roads, a sharp decline in traffic congestion was witnessed across major cities globally, especially in the month of April when some of the strictest restrictions were in place. The annual congestion levels are still reported to have declined even though the traffic picked up in later months as lockdowns were eased gradually.

TomTom Traffic Index, developed by a Dutch multinational creator of location technology, reported a steep decline in traffic congestion last year in 386 of the 416 major cities that it has been collecting and analyzing data for over the last four years.

A total of 35 cities saw a drop of more than 10 percent led by Bengaluru, India with a 20 percent decline followed by Manila, the Philippines where congestion declined by 18 percent last year compared to the year before that.

In the United States, one of the most congested cities in the country, Los Angeles, saw a 15 percent drop in congestion along with San Francisco.

The index calculates traffic congestion based on the extra time taken to travel a certain distance that is usually covered in a specific amount of time in a given city. For instance, a 53 percent congestion level in Bangkok means that a half-hour trip will take 53 percent more time than it would during Bangkok’s baseline uncongested conditions.

The baseline is calculated per city by analyzing free-flow travel times of all vehicles on the entire road network — recorded round the clock through the entire year. This data, in turn, is collected from a community of more than 600 million drivers, who use TomTom tech in navigation devices, in-dash systems, and smartphones around the world.

People even wasted fewer hours stuck in rush hour traffic jams. Cities witnessed an average of 26 percent decline in annual hours wasted in rush hour. So, an individual in Bengaluru, India spent 76 hours less than what they spent in 2019 in rush hour traffic jams. Similarly, an individual saved 72 hours in rush hour in Santiago, Chile.

With the onset of vaccination programs in various countries, what remains to be seen now is how the traffic congestion in these cities would change or, in fact, increase this year when people start to step out more as vaccines bring hope and restrictions are further eased on the regular movement of people.