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COVID silver lining: Traffic congestion plummeted by 31% in Salt Lake area in 2020

Lots of people staying home means clear sailing on roads.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Captured during a timed exposure, traffic is shown the intersection of 200 S. and West Temple in downtown Salt Lake City in 2018. Traffic congestion relief has been one of the few brights spots of the pandemic.

Because of COVID-19 and its stay-at-home orders, delays caused by traffic congestion in the Salt Lake metro area plummeted by a steep 31% last year, a new study says.

In 2019 before the pandemic, congestion typically added 5.7 minutes to a trip that would take 30 minutes in clear conditions in the Salt Lake area. In 2020, that dropped to 3.6 minutes.

That’s according to a global study by TomTom, a Netherlands-based navigation software company, based on data from drivers who use its navigation devices.

“Last year, we announced that global congestion levels in 2019 had increased for the ninth consecutive Traffic Index. In 2020, we saw a vastly different picture. From lockdowns to closed borders, people movement changed — and it changed very fast,” said Ralf-Peter Schafer, TomTom’s vice president of traffic and travel.

“Although traffic congestion was down in 2020, it’s not going to become a trend unless we take action,” he added. “We might even see traffic levels shoot up again as people get back to work and back into old routines.”

The study ranks cities by how much travel times are extended by congestion by percentage. In Salt Lake City, congestion this year extended travel time by 13%, down from 19% a year earlier.

Los Angeles was the most congested city in America, with drivers spending an average of 27% extra time stuck in traffic. Others among the most congested were New York City (26% more time), Miami (23%), San Francisco (21%) and Baton Rouge (20%).

Out of the 416 cities globally included in the TomTom Traffic index, 387 saw a significant decrease. The average drop was 21% overall, and 28% during rush hours.

Salt Lakers saw pretty clear sailing on the roads compared to most of the large cities measured, ranking a low 349 out of 416 in time added by congestion.

The study said the most congested day in Salt Lake City in 2020 was on Feb. 3, a day with bad weather before the pandemic hit, when congestion lengthened trips by 57%.

February was the most congested month last year, with trips delayed by an average 18%. The least congested month was April, a time of stay-at-home orders, when trips were extended by only an extra 6%.

The study said that on average for the year, trips during the evening rush hour were extended by 27% by congestion — but that was down by 45% in 2021. That meant adding an extra 8.1 minutes to a 30-minute trip last year compared to an extra 13.5 minutes in 2019.

Before the pandemic hit, Utah was one of the few places in North America where congestion was dropping while the population was increasing.

Among the 93 large North American cities or metro areas that it evaluated in 2019, 17 saw congestion drop — and the Salt Lake City area had the second-best decrease, even amid its rapid population growth.

It dropped by 2 percentage points in 2019, tying with New Haven, Conn., for second-best in North America, behind only the 3 percentage point drop in Portland, Ore.

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