TomTom’s annual index finds a significant decrease in traffic during rush hour due to the pandemic lockdowns.
Moscow has the dubious distinction of being the most traffic congested city in the world in 2020, dismantling Bengaluru, India, which was the most congested in 2019 and fell to 6th place. Los Angeles topped the list of cities in the US, according to the 10th annual TomTom Traffic Index, which details the traffic situation in over 400 cities in 57 countries.
Although the ranking of the world’s most congested cities has shifted very little from 2019, the significant change is how far congestion levels have fallen due to the global pandemic, TomTom said. Out of the 416 cities included in the index, 387 saw a significant decrease (average of 21%) in congestion, and a 28% average decrease in congestion during rush hours—bucking a trend that has seen congestion increase year-on-year since the first TomTom Traffic Index report.
“We’ve never experienced anything like that,” said Nicholas Cohn, traffic expert at TomTom, of the overall decline in traffic. “I can’t imagine for the US, for example, anything in the last 50 years—except for the expansion of the interstate highway system—that changed road mobility patterns as much as what happened in 2020.”
While Los Angeles takes the top spot in the US, in the overall global ranking the city placed 85th with drivers spending an average of 27% extra travel time stuck in traffic, down from 42% in 2019, Cohn said.
“After the initial [pandemic] restrictions went into place in March, there’s pretty much no city in the US that has come back to normal traffic levels,” he said.
Mumbai, India; Bogota, Columbia; Manila, Philippines; and Istanbul, Turkey; round out the list of the top five most traffic global cities.
Other US cities with heavy traffic
Following Los Angeles, the top five most congested cities in the US are New York (26%), Miami (23%), San Francisco (21%), and Baton Rouge (20%), respectively. Compared to 2019, Miami and Baton Rouge replaced San Jose and Seattle in the top five most congested cities in 2020.
This year’s index has new features built to address how different 2020 was from past years, TomTom said. They include interactive graphics that demonstrate the monthly and weekly changes to traffic, compare data year-over-year, a look at the least congested days to better explain what happened during the pandemic on those days and a look at travel patterns during working days to see how the daily commute changed.
One surprise was that Cape Coral-Fort Myers ranked in top 10 cities in the US for 2020, Cohn said. He said that many of its days in 2020 mirrored traffic congestion in 2019. “Traffic went down, but not anywhere as near as other cities, which is why it rose so high” in the ranking, he explained.
Other index highlights include:
Not surprisingly, in April 2020, 413 cities around the globe showed a decrease in traffic congestions, whereas only three saw an increase.
The summer months (June, July, August) saw a bit of return to normalcy with more cities showing increase in traffic congestion.
Overall, the US acted differently from the rest of the world in the sense that traffic never returned to its 2019 levels.
Cities whose traffic was lower than normal likely reflects the local restrictions put in place during the pandemic, such as the closure of businesses, meaning people were more apt to stay home, Cohn said.
The city of Bakersfield, Calif., placed 11th on the US list and Cohn noted that it is a city with many jobs that cannot be done from home. “Bakersfield has more jobs in the oil industry and big scale agriculture,” he said. “I think that kept traffic levels higher, compared to places like San Jose where people [typically] work in tech.”
In the case of Moscow, Cohn said it is an example of a city with lower travel restrictions during the pandemic.
Another surprise finding was that LA’s traffic peak was in the afternoon as opposed to the morning, he said, adding that he doesn’t know why this might be the case.
However, TomTom cautioned that it doesn’t expect the roads to stay so uncongested unless there’s a concerted and deliberate change in driver behavior supported by policy makers and employers. An end to the rush hour is possible through flexible working hours, working from home, and a smart approach to using traffic data to determine the best times to travel, the company said.
“I think it won’t be until the fall before we see familiar traffic congestion levels and familiar patterns coming back in a big way,” in cities such as New York, London, or Berlin, where commuters rely heavily on public transformation, Cohn said.