From his office in Amsterdam, Gijs Peters could see the response to the COVID-19 pandemic move across the world. In the beginning though, he couldn’t be sure exactly what he was looking at.
“It started really slowly,” Peters said, speaking from home since his office, like most places in the Netherlands, had closed. “You see some minor changes and you think it might be the weather. I mean, there's many things that affect traffic; a small change does not point to a pandemic.” He didn’t want to jump to a conclusion.
In late January, he first noticed rush hour traffic in China, specifically Wuhan, wasn’t as busy as usual. Fewer people were commuting to work. Then, weeks later, the same thing happened in Northern Italy. The roads were emptier than usual.
As a data scientist and traffic expert at TomTom, Peters was seeing the anonymous, aggregate movements of around 600 million drivers across the world. The company he works for, TomTom, provides location and navigation services to car manufacturers, Uber, Apple Maps and Microsoft, among others. You may even have a TomTom GPS unit suction-cupped to your car’s dashboard right now.
All that data — which TomTom states on its website is never sold and always anonymized — is used to tell your in-car navigation system or your smartphone where there's traffic, and which alternative routes to take to avoid it. Lately, all routes looked eerily good.
There are usually two daily spikes in traffic congestion: one when people drive to work; the other when they drive home.
On a Monday night, March 9, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte declared the whole country a “red zone.” Everyone was told to stay home. The morning after that lockdown, on Tuesday, Peters saw a dramatic drop in those two daily traffic spikes in Rome. There was barely a rush hour anymore. Those curves, at least, were flattening, and fast.
This wasn’t weather, or people going on holidays. He could see the same pattern — a slow downward trend followed by a large and fairly sudden drop in traffic congestion — happening in cities all over the world.
By the second week of March, Peters began to see what was (very probably) the effect of self-isolation, social-distancing, and the shuttering of shops, restaurants and offices in North American cities. Canada’s response to the pandemic could be seen in the traffic data too.
At 4 p.m. on the average Monday in Halifax last year, traffic congestion was at 48 per cent, according to a metric TomTom calls its, “congestion index.”
In this case, it means a journey will take 48 per cent more time as a result of traffic. For example, what would be a one hour drive with free-flowing traffic takes nearly an hour and a half at 4 p.m. on the average Monday in Halifax.
For comparison, on Monday, March 30 at 4 p.m., the streets were (relatively) empty. The congestion index had dropped dramatically, peaking at just 12 per cent in Halifax, a 36 percentage point reduction in evening rush hour traffic. If you look at the Thursday evening rush hour — typically the worst time for traffic congestion — the drop off is even more precipitous. On March 26 at 4 p.m., congestion was down 50 percentage points in Halifax, according to TomTom’s data. People were staying home.
In Vancouver, through the last week in March, the congestion index was down roughly 50 percentage points compared to the average weekday rush hour in 2019. In Calgary, it dropped roughly 25 percentage points. In Milan, the biggest city in Northern Italy, the congestion index dropped by as much as 65 percentage points as the country remained under lockdown.
In Toronto, the big drop-off in traffic volume was evident beginning around the same day Trudeau made the “stay home” announcement. During the Wednesday evening commute that week, the congestion index peaked at just 17 per cent. Compare that to an average of 72 per cent at the same time last year. A rush hour commute that’s normally 52 minutes would’ve taken 35 minutes. The roads were (relatively) empty.
“In North America we have data on about 10 to 15 per cent of all cars driving around,” Peters said. The data includes everyone from occasional drivers, professional delivery drivers, Uber drivers and commuters. In other words, the data is very representative of what’s actually going on.
You can see the effect of the pandemic on Google Maps or Waze too. Highways that are usually thick red lines across major cities at rush hour are now often green.
It bucks a global trend Peters has seen over the past few years. “We’ve seen traffic slowly increasing in most cities in the world,” he said.
There have been sudden drops in traffic before, because of road closures due to forest fires, like those in California last year, for example. But, in Peters’ experience, sudden drops like that have always been very regional, not worldwide.
“That traffic has been so low, on average, in so many cities, all over the world, for multiple days and weeks is absolutely...,” Peters’ voice trailed off. “...I've never seen that before.”