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Twin Cities traffic is back, but work isn't driving it

Traffic volumes have returned to pre-pandemic norms, but work commutes are shorter and far fewer people are taking transit.

ST PAUL, Minn. — If you feel like you've been dealing with more traffic on the roads lately, you're on to something. According to MNDOT, overall traffic volume on Twin Cities highways have inched even closer to their pre-pandemic norms (now within 3%).

But work isn't driving that return to normal, and that means commutes - and congestion - still remain more manageable than they were in 2019.

"Some folks have reached out and said, my own commute feels like it's suddenly busier again, have the overall volumes changed? I'm like, overall, no, not really," said Jake Loesch, director of communications for MnDOT.

A recent survey from the US Census Bureau, first reported by Axios Twin Cities, found that local workers reported that their commute times fell by nearly three minutes in 2021. According to the same survey, 26% of Twin Cities workers reported still primarily working from home.

Loesch says that translates to a more unpredictable traffic pattern, especially early in the day. A MnDOT analysis of traffic shows morning commutes remains shorter and less congested than they were prior to the pandemic. In the afternoons, he says it's largely remained the same.

"Many people, especially office workers are sort of in these more flexible work schedules and we're accommodating things like school and sports and other events that people are back returning to," Loesch said. "Which brings people back on the roads, just maybe at slightly different times than they were driving before."

And with fewer people traveling solely for work, it's meant fewer people taking public transportation. Metro Transit Ridership has climbed near a two year high this fall, but remains about half of what it was in 2019.

Charles Carlson, executive director of Metropolitan Transportation Services for the Met Council, says the shifting trends have been a big hurdle to getting riders back on the bus and train.

Carlson: "Work trips were always much more predictable. Now we see people have a variety of trips they can take, a variety of different ways they can do it."

Kent Erdahl: "Does it say something different about what we need from our infrastructure, when people have more flexibility in their own days and their lives?"

Carlson: "Yeah, I think it's moving us toward an all-day type model. We're seeing the most success, the most resiliency in service that's provided frequently, all day."

MetroTransit's new Gold Line Bus Rapid Transit route, which broke ground this week, is part of that effort. So is increased security efforts around those frequent routes.

"Planning for the future of the region and travel in the region creates some new questions that we're looking into an continuing to study," Carlson said.

But at a time when riders are looking for more flexibility, a driver shortage continues to hamper those efforts. Metro transit has completed 25% fewer trips this fall than it did in 2019, and more cuts could be required in December. 

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