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March 2021 traffic (Steven Joyner)

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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