Traffic, crashes and congestion rebounding after COVID-19 spring slump

Trucks are up, cars are down. Lower income earners take the most daily trips. More people died in vehicle crashes this year than in 2019. And, yes, folks are driving faster in 2020.

It's the third quarter of our COVID-19 year - here are five take-aways about transportation trends shaped by the pandemic.

• How many Illinoisans are driving? Passenger car traffic on expressways plummeted to 47% below normal in late March, a few days after Illinois' stay-at-home order began. It climbed back but was still 12% below norms as of late August, a Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning recent analysis shows.

In contrast, heavy truck traffic, such as semitrailers, fell by 25% in April but bounced back in August to normal. Smaller truck traffic declined by 27% this spring, then reached volumes of 8% above average in August as home deliveries surged.

With thousands working from home and avoiding outings, the trends are "honestly a little surprising - that traffic is only down by the amount that it is - given the restrictions that we still have in place," CMAP Deputy Executive Director Jesse Elam said.

• How fast are we driving? Before COVID-19, traffic on state highways chugged along at 48 mph in the morning rush hour and 41 mph in the afternoon. But after Illinois' stay-at-home order began March 21, speeds zipped up to averages of 63 mph from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 62.7 mph from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., an increase of 31% to 53%.

In September, the thrill was slightly gone with morning rush speeds of 58.5 mph and afternoons clocking 50.7 mph, CMAP researchers found.

• Who's staying at home? White-collar workers hunkered down more than blue-collar this spring, CMAP found. Compared to pre-pandemic conditions, lower-income households decreased travel by 35% compared to higher-income earners who reduced trips by about 60%.

"That's been driven primarily by them having white-collar jobs that could be readily moved to telecommuting," Elam noted. "People with lower incomes often were in the essential worker type jobs, where they could not work off-site. It's a privilege to telecommute."

• What's the public transit toll? Systemwide ridership has slipped by nearly 70%. On Pace, passenger traffic has dropped by 40% as of late August. For Metra, it was closer to 90%. And CTA train travel was down by about 75% with bus ridership declining by close to 60%, CMAP reported.

The fact trains stay empty as expressways fill up spells trouble, Elam thinks. "You have to be worried we have a congestion rebound - because people aren't going to get on transit."

• How many people are dying in crashes? As of Sunday, IDOT recorded 786 fatalities in vehicle crashes, a 16-person increase from 770 on Oct. 11, 2019. Crash numbers actually shot up in January and February of 2020, dove March through May and grew again in June, IDOT spokeswoman Maria Castaneda said.

"While we can't speculate and don't know all the reasons why the overall numbers are aligning from last year with fewer cars on the roads, anecdotally we have noticed an increase in higher speeds," Castaneda explained.

Illinois State Police Sgt. Christopher Wilson added, "it is extremely difficult to make assumptions as to traffic trends, and even more difficult in these unprecedented times as we have no frame of reference to compare."

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Make your mark

Hey teen artists - here's a chance for thousands to see your work. The Illinois tollway on Friday launched its 10th annual map cover contest for high school students. The competition will be conducted virtually this year, with entries displayed on the tollway's Facebook page for the public to vote on. This year's theme is "Everyday heroes," marking people who have stepped up during the COVID-19 pandemic. The deadline to submit artwork is Oct. 28. Visit for more info.

<h3 class="leadin">Gridlock alert

Find a Plan B if you're driving near Route 83/Ivanhoe Road and Route 137/Buckley Road in Grayslake. Metra is repairing the Milwaukee District North Line crossing, which means the interchange is closed through Oct. 15. Detour signs will be posted and drivers are encouraged to use Midlothian Road as an alternate.

<h3 class="leadin">Your voice

Gib VanDine of West Chicago weighs in regarding last week's column on trains transporting liquefied natural gas (LNG). "It would be crazy to allow all of the cars in a long train to be those containing LNG," he wrote. "If a derailment ignited even one of those cars ... the result could incinerate a medium-sized town.

"What would make reasonable sense is for each of those cars to be separated by six or seven other cars that are not carrying fuel. This way, if one of the cars were to ignite, it would be separated from the others."

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