Traffic in Sarpy County decreased significantly due to the coronavirus pandemic, bottoming out at slightly more than half of normal at its lowest point in mid-April.
For the week of May 17-23, traffic in Sarpy County was 20% below average, which was similar to the change for the Omaha area as a whole. Interstate traffic in the metro area was down more than 25%.
Sarpy County’s low point came the week of April 12-18 at 45% below average, while statewide traffic was down 35%.
Figures are based on data gathered by the Nebraska Department of Transportation and compared to traffic patterns from 2016 to 2018. NDOT excluded 2019 due to road damage caused by flooding across the state.
Greg Youell, executive director of Omaha-Council Bluffs Metropolitan Area Planning Agency, put the decrease into perspective this way: “To have more than one-third of traffic off the roads you’re going back to traffic loads in the 1970s.”
Traffic growth in the metro area increases by an average of 1% per year, Youell said, so today’s traffic system is built for today’s loads, which leaves a lot of extra space.
The timing of the pandemic captured one significant factor for traffic load: schools.
School districts in Sarpy County closed in the middle of March and students ended the school learning from home, and all the traffic associated was gone.
Youell said school-related traffic is so significant that when MAPA analyzes traffic loads it treats data gathered during the summer months differently than it does data gathered in the fall or spring.
“People don’t fully appreciate the impact school traffic has on street systems,” he said.
Truck traffic has been relatively stable, Youell said, so goods people and businesses need are still being purchased, shipped and delivered.
Youell said it’s too early to tell what the long-term effects will be, but he believes there will be some.
For example, traffic is slowly returning to normal but he isn’t seeing a rush for businesses to get people back in the office, he said, as some companies are considering having their employees work from home more frequently because productivity went up and expenses went down when their workforce was at home.
Globally, cities are realizing they don’t want as much space devoted to vehicle lanes, Youell said, and locally trail usage and bike sales are “through the roof.” That may lead to more pedestrian- and biking-friendly infrastructure.
Public transit ridership is down as people avoid potential exposure to the coronavirus, but Youell believes ridership will rebound. He said nationally there will be a lot of interest in developing more public transit infrastructure.
A recent study conducted by MAPA and the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce showed every dollar invested in public transit yielded between $2 and $9 in benefits, with the higher range of benefits coming from pairing transit investment with supportive land use like walkable neighborhoods, denser housing and connectivity with higher education and the metro’s large employment centers.
There may be some hesitation for public transit once the pandemic stops but people will still need to get to where they need to go, Youell said.
“We’re human beings and we need to be together and will find a way to do things safely.”