More than a year into the pandemic, some things are returning to normal. Increasing vaccine access means some families have been able to reunite safely after months apart. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott lifted the statewide mask mandate and business capacity restrictions. And traffic is making a comeback.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, traffic volume dropped by nearly half in the Austin area and across the country. It then gradually increased until last summer, when it leveled off at around 80% of pre-pandemic levels, according to a new dashboard compiled by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin.
More recently, traffic volume has trended slightly upward as compared to the summer plateau, Austin Transportation Department Consulting Engineer Jen Duthie told Austonia. In the last week, there has been a decrease, with traffic volume hovering at around 70% of pre-pandemic levels, which she suggested could be due to spring break and daylight savings.
This drop came with some unexpected consequences. Although the number of overall crashes in Austin fell nearly 20% in 2020, fatal crashes grew more common, increasing nearly 5% in the same time period. City data suggests a number of reasons for this change, from young drivers taking advantage of emptier roads and speeding to police enforcing traffic laws less stringent in an effort to reduce exposure to COVID-19.
Since the holidays, the state of Texas has recovered from its latest COVID surge, increasingly opened up and expanded vaccine eligibility. It's still too early to tell the exact impact that these changes will have on traffic congestion. But Austin Police Department Detective Patrick Oborski, who works on the highway enforcement team, said there are some positive signs. "Traffic is definitely increasing on the roads, so people aren't able to drive quite as fast," he told Austonia.
The number of overall crashes, serious injuries and fatalities are all down compared to this time last year, according to city data. Oborski suspects that traffic levels and crash types may return to their baseline levels as the pandemic recovery continues. But he was careful to mention that there will be long-term impacts as a result of the past year. "Things have changed," he said, citing the sea change of remote work. "I don't think we're going to go back to where we were pre-pandemic."
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With major entertainment events slated for October, the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport is gearing up for a busy month.
Artists and music lovers are set to pack into Zilker Park for The Austin City Limits Music Festival in the coming two weekends. Following that, Formula One will bring racing fans to the Circuit of the Americas.
For those two events, the airport is anticipating high passenger days with 30,000 or more people departing flights.
ABIA recommends arriving at least two and a half hours in advance for domestic flights on those days. For ACL, it's expected on both Sundays of the festival along with the Monday and Tuesday after. The F1-driven high passenger days are expected on Oct. 20-21 and Oct. 23-26.
\u201c#AustinCityLimits visitors, you\u2019re in for a weird and wild ride \ud83e\udd18\u262e\ufe0f \n\nFlying in or out of our airport? We got firm and fun tips for you: https://t.co/RawVRalOXN\u201d— Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS) (@Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS)) 1664894083
F1, especially, could draw in loads of travelers as the three-day event saw 400,000 attendees last year. ABIA warns that highways leading to the airport may see even higher traffic than usual around the event and that travelers should plan their route accordingly.
Bailey Grimmett, a spokesperson for ABIA, said travel numbers come in 24 hours in advance. So, it's hard to predict if the airport will see travel volumes at the same levels that have happened around previous F1 races or if it'll top ACL's flight traffic.
Still, she says historical knowledge points to a chance for it.
“We've had that Monday after F1 break the record for single busiest in airport history," Grimmett said. "So context clues I would say yes, but I can't confirm that. But the historical background points to that."
In anticipation of the high volume of flyers, the airport received additional TSA officers for security screening through the end of October. To prepare even further, the Department of Aviation and partners hosted a job showcase and hiring fair to address the continued labor shortage the airport has experienced.
Relief from hectic travel days is on the horizon with November likely to see a slowdown.
"I don't anticipate it will be as busy as October just because we don't have as many events going on," Grimmett said. "Thanksgiving is kind of our primary holiday that we see a lot of passengers coming in and out of the airport."