Impact of COVID-19 on The Transportation Industry – Importance of Traffic Data

Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has changed the world significantly in different aspects. Most businesses had to close due to the imposed restrictions by the local and federal governments. These restrictions have changed traffic patterns and reduced traffic congestion in most areas.

People work from home, or they are less likely to use public transportation due to their health concerns if they go to work. Public transportation agencies had to reschedule and reduce bus and train services. People are less inclined to go out, run errands, or participate in leisure activities. Instead, as a society, we have adopted new practices such as online shopping, food delivery services, at-home workouts, and virtual hangouts. This massive shift in the supply chain has, in turn, created a significant issue in commercial and delivery truck shortages because of the high volume of online shopping orders.

Canada was hit by the first pandemic wave in late March 2020 and had imposed a national lockdown at that time. The restrictions were gradually lowered as conditions improved, and the number of active cases dropped. During the mandatory lockdown, Canada had experienced a significant change to the usual road congestion resulting in less traffic and shorter commute times. However, when the government gradually started reducing restrictions, and some businesses opened, traffic congestion partially returned to the streets, and commute times increased again.

The impact of traffic patterns changes can be seen clearly in traffic data before and during the pandemic. Based on the data from SMATS’s analytical platform, iNode, traffic congestion had dropped by 51% in April 2020 compared to February 2020 on one of the busiest highways in Ontario, Canada. Figure 1 shows the average travel time and vehicle counts chart of this highway before the pandemic and when the lockdown started in Ontario. 

Figure 1 – Average travel time and vehicle counts comparison chart

In figure 1, each month’s traffic data was aggregated with the 5-minute interval to calculate the average travel time and vehicle counts. The data displays a large amount of reduction in average travel time and vehicle counts in April compared to February.   

Figure 2 represents and compares the highway’s average travel time for nine consecutive months, from January to September 2020.

Figure 2 – Average travel time chart for 2020 

As shown in Figure 2, travel time had the lowest value when the first wave of Covid-19 started in Canada and increased gradually when the restrictions were loosened during the pandemic.  

The question remains, if the transportation systems are designed based on normal conditions, can they still operate efficiently in pandemic conditions. For example, roads and traffic signals designed for pre-pandemic data might not adapt to the changes if they are not re-adjusted. Having up-to-date traffic data and making frequent adjustments to the transportation systems can result in a more optimized operation of transportation systems that are fair and efficient for all road users.