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Traffic congestion tumbled amid coronavirus pandemic, but jams will return, study says

The TomTom Traffic Index shows how quickly people changed their habits as the pandemic swept across the US, but the firm doesn't think things will stay so peachy.

Light traffic in LA

Even LA saw a massive drop in congestion.

David McNew/Getty Images

No surprise, traffic congestion fell significantly in every major US city as the coronavirus pandemic sent everyone home, according to TomTom's 2020 Traffic Index, the GPS company announced Tuesday. Beyond various local rules, so many people left their offices and schools behind and transitioned into a work-from-home environment. But for those who enjoyed fewer traffic jams and clearer roads, TomTom has some bad news for you: The congestion will almost surely return.

The annual index, which looks at all major US cities to rank them based on traffic congestion, showed rankings for each city didn't really change much compared to 2019. Each city saw traffic congestion fall, typically in line with how much traffic there usually is in the city. In 387 of the cities included in the study, traffic congestion dropped by 21% in 2020. Take nearly a quarter of the traffic you typically saw on the road in 2019 and move them off streets to understand how large of a drop that is.

No surprise, Los Angeles remains America's most congested city with a congestion level percentage of 27%. TomTom calculates the value with a baseline of an uncongested scenario, so those residing in LA spent 27% more time in traffic than a trip taken during the city's baseline, uncongested figure. New York City ranked second with a 26% congestion level and Miami landed in third with 23%.

Miami and Baton Rouge replaced Seattle and San Jose in the top five most congested cities in the US this year, but the two still land in the top 10, according to TomTom's analysis.

While the drop in congestion is a good thing for drivers amid terrible circumstances, Ralf-Peter Schäfer, TomTom's VP of traffic and travel, believes the country will once again fall into precoronavirus routines once the pandemic comes under control.

"Although traffic congestion was down in 2020, it's not going to become a trend. We're going to see traffic levels shoot up again -- as people get back to work and back into old routines. That's why now is the time that city planners, policy makers, employers -- and drivers -- should take stock of what action they will take to make the roads less congested in the future."

In other words, if officials really want to see how they can reduce congestion, now's the time to take note. Soon, we'll likely be back to year-over-year congestion increases.

Top 10 US cities with most traffic

Rank City Congestion level
1 Los Angeles 27%
2 New York City 26%
3 Miami 23%
4 San Francisco 21%
5 Baton Rouge 20%
6 San Jose 19%
7 Cape Coral-Fort Myers 19%
8 Seattle 19%
9 Honolulu 19%
10 Riverside 19%