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'Crazy' Austin Traffic Almost Back To Pre-Pandemic Intensity

 Rush hour traffic on MoPac South
Gabriel C. Pérez
Afternoon rush hours are closest to the pre-pandemic levels shown here on MoPac in December 2018.

As people rip off their face masks and dive back into life, a return to normalcy is appearing in the most unwelcome of places: Austin's highways and byways.

Traffic volumes in the city have gradually risen to about 90% of pre-pandemic levels, according to the latest weekly data from the Austin Transportation Department. For highways and major roads, traffic volumes are almost back to normal.

"Traffic has just gone crazy," said Leslie Cidale, a local filmmaker who has two kids and spends a lot of time on the road. "It's like prohibition is over or something."

The end of a 14-month social hibernation has given thousands of people reason to jump back into their vehicles and head into the office, out to dinner or back to brick-and-mortar retailers. Roads are getting clogged, traffic jams are returning and toxic fumes are spewing into the air, particularly in the afternoons when traffic remains the heaviest.

"It brings out the worst emotions, because when you're sitting there it's also the hottest part of the day," said Brooke Mosley, who works as a member services representative in the legal insurance industry. She recently got a TxTag to take the MoPac Expressway toll lane each day, paying to avoid being stuck in traffic.

"I'd see people whizzing by me and I'd just be sitting there stagnant," she said.

The one bright spot remains mornings, particularly since school got out for the summer. Traffic volumes the week of June 4 were 33% lower in the morning compared to the week of Feb. 2, 2020, ATD data shows.

Austin traffic has been slow to bounce back compared to Texas as a whole, according to data from traffic analysis firm Streetlight Data. A recent report from the San Francisco-based company shows daily average vehicle miles travelled in Texas were 5.8% higher in March 2021 than February 2020.

"Workers in Austin have more ability to remote work relative to workers perhaps across the country," Austin Transportation Department Managing Engineer Jen Duthie said. "That's one of the theories as to why we're still seeing lower traffic levels and more spread-out traffic than other parts of the country."

The City of Austin expects traffic to return to pre-pandemic levels in the fall. But that will largely depend on how much businesses allow employees to work from home or adopt flexible schedules to avoid traffic at the worst times of day.

"Unless we take real action to work in a concerted way," Streetlight Data's Martin Morzynski said, "we'll have a hard time getting back to a normal that's better than before. In fact, we risk being worse."

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.
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