Report: Traffic in ABQ area nears pre-pandemic levels, but Downtown ABQ lags

By: - November 1, 2021 5:39 am

A cyclist passes a “Health Advisory” sign on March 18, 2020, in Miami Beach, Florida. (Cliff Hawkins / Getty Images)

The way people move around New Mexico’s biggest metropolitan area is beginning to bounce back following the coronavirus pandemic, but some areas are slower than others, according to new data released last week. 

Vehicular traffic in the metro area is beginning to return to pre-COVID travel conditions, according to the Mid-Region Council of Governments’ annual report released Thursday. The report showed where and by how much traffic rates rose and fell during the pandemic until about May of this year. 

And to the disappointment of one MRCOG planner, bicycle and pedestrian traffic in the region has returned to pre-pandemic levels after nearly doubling in 2020, according to the data. He’d hoped more commuters would have discovered a sustainable way to work without a car in 2020.

The number of cyclists counted on metro-area paths nearly doubled in the early pandemic months with 75,000 bikes on the trails in May 2020, according to the data. But one year later, data show, the count was back down to just a little over 40,000. The same was true for pedestrians — with numbers hitting  39,000 and then sliding back down to about 22,000 in the same time frame. 

Bike and pedestrian traffic in May of 2019, 2020 and 2021, according to MRCOG (Courtesy MRCOG

“You want to see people utilizing those services, non-motorized options,” said senior transportation planner Nathan Masek. “It lessens impact on our roadway system, and it just creates a better environment for civic living and everything.”

Vehicle traffic dipped by more than half in Downtown Albuquerque as of May 2021, according to the data. It increased by more than one-quarter in some areas outside of the city, including in major traffic centers and intersections in the North Valley, the South Valley and near Isleta Pueblo, the report shows.

In the first three months of 2020, traffic throughout the region overall fell by one-third below 2019 levels. By the end of 2020, it had reduced about 18 percent below 2019 levels, according to the report. 

Masek said that he has been a little surprised to still observe fewer vehicles on major roads leading to Downtown Albuquerque, especially Lead and Coal Avenues, even as things open back up. But that reduction in traffic has coincided with increased average speeds, plus some reckless driving. 

It’s unclear what is behind Downtown’s lagging return to pre-pandemic levels, he said, and whether it’s permanent. But he guessed that some workers are finding it possible to work from home or that businesses are finding it more efficient to have at least some meetings virtually. 

Traffic movement data, courtesy MRCOG

“There’s been an increase in use of not only remote work, but remote meetings and things like that that are providing people with more options,” he said. “And so in a way, it’s enabling people to manage their transportation a little better.”

Traffic patterns throughout the morning and evening are coming back to their pre-COVID shapes, but some differences remain. 

For example, pre-COVID, morning traffic spiked at an average of 200,000 vehicles passing over MRCOG counters in the Albuquerque area each morning around 7 a.m., the report states. Between, December 2020 and May 2021, however, the 7 a.m. spike averaged only about 150,000, and the decline afterward is less steep. 

So it’s possible flexible work hours post-pandemic mean more people are sleeping in a little bit longer, Masek said, and traffic volumes are dispersed a bit more across the morning hours.

Traffic throughout the day in the study area, per MRCOG

 

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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard. Along the way, he's won several state and national awards for his reporting, including for an exposé on a cult-like Alcoholics Anonymous group and a feature on an Upstate New York militia member who died of COVID-19. He's thrilled to be back home in New Mexico, where he works to tell stories that resonate and make an impact.

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