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The Tipping Point: What COVID Travel Reductions Tells Us About Effective Congestion Relief

Status:  Complete
Report Date:  05/03/2022


As the COVID-19 pandemic kept people at home, decreases in travel were to be expected. Traffic congestion was effectively eliminated. Traffic levels slowly increased as the state reopened in the late summer and early fall of 2020. To ease congestion, MnDOT and its partners strive to develop effective travel demand strategies and need solid estimates of how successful a given program might be in reducing traffic. Using the real-life experiment in drastic traffic volume changes, researchers identified the relationship between incremental changes in traffic volume and congestion, which will inform agency efforts to ease congestion. The research team analyzed traffic volume before and during the pandemic to understand congestion on area freeways—both from a regional perspective and in specific corridors. They found the tipping point, where even small increases in traffic volumes will create congestion that becomes volatile—or unpredictable—expanding across the region. They also identified some unequal community impacts of traffic congestion across the region and initial indications of how other, nonfreeway roads respond to regional congestion. The forced travel reductions of 2020 may ultimately help in making traffic more manageable for everyone.

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