OGDEN — A new report from the Wasatch Front Regional Council says the COVID-19 pandemic is having a significant impact on transportation and emissions in Utah.
Officials from the WFRC, Utah’s metropolitan planning arm, have been analyzing data during the pandemic and comparing it to past trends — measuring the impact that social distancing and stay-at-home policies have had on transportation, transit and air quality.
Broadly speaking, the council’s analysis says the pandemic is decreasing travel and traffic volumes, reducing congestion and travel times, limiting transit use, and reducing emissions all along the Wasatch Front.
Using Google’s recent Community Mobility Reports, the WFRC report says that visits to retail areas, transit stations and workplace locations is down about 40% compared to data collected prior to the pandemic. While activity around grocery stores saw a large spike during the initial weeks of the pandemic, WFRC’s report says it’s gradually declined and is now at levels slightly below average.
Information from the Utah Department of Transportation shows that average weekday freeway traffic has decreased by 30% to 45%. At point-of-entry locations into the state, traffic volumes have fallen by as much as 65%, the report says.
“For perspective, the last time Utah has seen traffic volumes on I-15 at our current levels was about twenty-five years ago,” the report reads.
UDOT spokesman John Gleason previously told the Standard-Examiner the decrease in traffic has had a positive impact on transportation department construction work, with smaller and shorter traffic peaks allowing for extended lane closures and more time to get in work.
Freight truck volumes have also decreased, according to the WFRC report, but only by about 20%.
The WFRC regularly samples drive times using real-time navigation apps. For the report, the council looked at 80 sets origin and destination pairings and found the average travel time among them was reduced by 12% to 14% for the peak commuting direction and 9% to 11% for the off-peak direction.
Assuming a 15% reduction in truck traffic and a 40% reduction in all other traffic due to the coronavirus restrictions, the WFRC estimates that vehicle emissions of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, which are both precursors for particulate and ozone pollution, would be reduced by 38%.
“I’ve been hiking in the foothills with my dog and the air looks and feels cleaner than it has in years,” said Roger Borgenicht, co-chair of Utahns for Better Transportation, a grassroots group dedicated to promoting balanced transportation choices that protect the environment and quality of life along the Wasatch Front.
“Hopefully, some good can come of this awful situation we’re in and people will wake up to realize we need to do everything we can to make our air quality as good as it can be,” Borgenicht said. “I think people are seeing by driving less a difference can be made, and it’s good for everybody.”
While the report notes that most of COVID-19’s impacts on transportation have been positive, the transit industry has suffered significantly.
According to numbers provided by the Utah Transit Authority, ridership at the end of March was down 61% on local bus routes, down 64% on TRAX, and down 77% on Front Runner. Overall, system ridership has decreased by about 65%, according to the WFRC report.