Data shows Albuquerque-metro traffic rebounding slower in some areas amid COVID-19

Coronavirus New Mexico

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – It’s no secret that thousands of fewer cars have traveled Albuquerque’s roadways during the pandemic as compared to the same time in 2019. But as the city and surrounding area continue to reopen, traffic planners are identifying differences in the where traffic is and isn’t returning to normal.

Since New Mexico identified its first COVID-19 cases in March, the agency responsible for counting traffic in the metro area has been hard at work measuring traffic in 155 areas across the region. Knowing that the stay-at-home order would dramatically affect work trips, traffic planners at the Mid-Region Council of Governments sought to measure exact data showing the change.

“This is a unique situation, almost a once in a lifetime scenario,” said Nathan Masek, a senior transportation planner with the Mid Region Council of Governments. “To capture what’s actually happening, and how the COVID restrictions and the pandemic is affecting our travel demand our traffic volumes on the roadway.”

Since March, MRCOG has rotated its traffic counting devices through its various locations twice. Cycle one data represents the period of time between March 23 and May 28, and cycle two represents data collected between June 8 and August 20. MRCOG says it is “performing ongoing monitoring,” using short-duration, 48-hour daily average tube counts to collect data.

In cycle one, overall, aggregate traffic volume in the metro-area dropped by about 32% as compared to the same time in 2019. The latest round of data from cycle two shows about half of the missing traffic volume has returned to metro-area roadways. Traffic counts show about a 16% decline in traffic during cycle two as compared to the same time in 2019.

While overall traffic volume across the metro is slowly rising again, Masek says traffic data shows different regions are seeing recovery at different rates. “Areas of high employment, such as the Journal Center or downtown, they’re recovering a much slower rate,” Masek said.

In cycle one, the changes in traffic volume were most dramatic. Masek created graphics showing the reduction of traffic volume per region, as compared to traffic volume from those regions in 2019.

“Cycle One” traffic volume changes – data from March 23 through May 28. (Courtesy: MRCOG)

The following graphic shows how much less traffic volume was seen in specific metro-area regions in cycle two (June through August,) compared to 2019 pre-pandemic traffic.

“Cycle Two” traffic volume changes – data from June 8 through August 20. (Courtesy: MRCOG)

Downtown (titled as “CBD,” or “Central Business District”) notably saw about one-third less of the traffic volume between June and August 2020 as it did at the same time in 2019. Meanwhile, cycle two data shows the South Valley saw merely two-percent less traffic volume in cycle two compared to the same time in 2019, meaning the region has returned to near normal volume.

Masek says the data also shows the metro-region may be approaching a “new normal” in changes to traffic flow. The information being collected could ultimately play a part in what road projects come next. For example, the data could be used in consideration of where increased broadband access or development is needed.

“As a planner, I’m thinking about how people are going to respond to being able to work from home,” Masek said. “(I’m also thinking about) how can transportation planners respond with policy decisions.”

MRCOG began collecting the third round of traffic data starting on August 24. The agency says it will continue monitoring traffic “until it is believed that a ‘new Normal’ of traffic volume stabilization has been (partially or fully) achieved.” However, the agency says with the uncertainty of the pandemic, “it is likely that any ‘recovery’ will be protracted.”

Traffic counts showing the overall effect of COVID-19 on average traffic volume throughout the day. The x-axis displays the time of day. The y-axis displays traffic volume. Each color line represents a different era of time, including Pre-COVID, cycle 1, and cycle 2 times. (Courtesy: MRCOG)

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