It wasn’t until this week that the new coronavirus outbreak began to have widespread effects in Massachusetts.
As the number of presumptive cases in the state surpassed 90, Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency. Major companies told employees to work remotely. Colleges — from Harvard to UMass — began canceling in-person classes and sending students home. A growing list of museums and events have shut down. The Boston Marathon’s future is in flux.
But if the crucial social distancing efforts to limit the pandemic’s spread have had one positive side effect, residents are seeing it in their commutes.
An analysis this week by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation found that travel times along some of the Boston area’s most congested stretches of highway were significantly shorter during the morning rush hour Monday and Tuesday. As the State House News Service first reported, commutes were down as much as half on parts of I-93 and I-90, compared to average times on the same days in previous years.
For example, on Tuesdays from late February to late March last year, it took an average of nearly 39 minutes to drive southbound on I-93 from the I-95 interchange to the Zakim Bridge at 7 a.m. in the morning. This past Tuesday, it took 22 minutes, according to MassDOT.
Driving north on I-93 from the Braintree split to the O’Neill Tunnel in Boston took more than 31 minutes during the morning rush hour on Tuesdays this time of year in 2019. But on this Tuesday, it took less than 22 minutes, the analysis found.
But the difference was most noticeable on the Mass. Pike, where travel times from the I-495 interchange to the Allston-Brighton-Cambridge area averaged more than 62 minutes at 8 a.m. last year. According to MassDOT, the same trip took less than 31.5 minutes on Tuesday.
“On most Tuesdays in March, congestion extends almost 20 miles back from Exit 18, to Route 9 at Exit 12,” state officials wrote. “On Tuesday, March 10, 2020, heavy congestion never formed. There was mild congestion in the area just east of I-95 for the hours of 7:00 am and 8:00 am.”
The difference was less stark during non-peak travel times and during the afternoon rush hour. In some cases Monday (which officials noted was also the day after the beginning of daylight savings), the commute times were equivalent or slightly longer than previous averages. But the travel times Tuesday morning were down across the board. By 10 a.m., drivers could make it from the Braintree split to O’Neill Tunnel in 10 minutes.
The analysis — which came one day after a study ranked Boston as the most congested city in the country — was conducted at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, but anecdotal evidence on social media suggested the evening rush hour was more of the same.
— Ari Ofsevit (@ofsevit) March 10, 2020
This would normally be bumper to bumper at 6:30 on a Tuesday. Encouraging SOME cars off the roads makes a BIG difference. 🚗 🚙 pic.twitter.com/5Qv4tZQLif
— Jonathan Berk (@berkie1) March 10, 2020
State officials declined to link the more freely flowing traffic to the local response to the coronavirus. However, the trend has been similar, if not more noticeable, in other cities harder hit by the outbreak.
One study showed that traffic in notoriously congested Seattle — where hundreds of coronavirus cases have been reported — nosedived beginning last week, after local officials and large companies, like Amazon and Microsoft, directed employees to work from home. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that San Francisco and Silicon Valley also saw decreased road traffic, amid similar social distancing efforts. The same is reportedly true in Los Angeles, another usually traffic-plagued city.
It’s also not just road traffic. According to The Boston Globe, the number of Logan Airport passengers that went through security last week was down more than 13 percent compared to the previous year. And ridership on the MBTA was down 3 percent. Health experts say that it remains relatively safe to take public transit, at least for now. However, the Baker administration is encoruaging “older adults and those with underlying health issues to avoid large crowds.”
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