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A traffic-data analyst has watched as congestion has plummeted in major cities around the world

monica bialobrzeski/The Globe and Mail

From his office in Amsterdam, Gijs Peters could see the response to the COVID-19 pandemic move across the world. In the beginning, though, he couldn’t be sure exactly what he was looking at.

“It started really slowly,” Peters said, speaking from home, since his office, like most places in the Netherlands, had been closed. “You see some minor changes, and you think it might be the weather. I mean, there’s many things that affect traffic; a small change does not point to a pandemic.” He didn’t want to jump to a conclusion.

In late January, he noticed rush-hour traffic in China, specifically the city of Wuhan, wasn’t as heavy as usual. Fewer people were commuting to work. Then, weeks later, the same thing happened in Northern Italy. The roads were emptier than usual.

As a data scientist and traffic expert at TomTom NV, Peters was seeing the anonymous, aggregate movements of about 600 million drivers across the world. TomTom provides location and navigation services to car manufacturers, Uber, Apple Maps and Microsoft, among others. You may have a TomTom GPS unit suction-cupped to your car’s dashboard right now.

All that data – which TomTom states on its website is never sold and always anonymized – is used to tell your in-car navigation system or your smartphone where there’s traffic and which alternative routes to take to avoid it. Last week, all routes looked eerily good.

There are usually two daily spikes in traffic congestion: one when people drive to work; the other when they drive home.

The streets of Rome sit deserted with the country on lockdown on March 22, 2020.ALBERTO LINGRIA/Reuters

On Monday, March 9, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte declared the whole country a “red zone.” Everyone was told to stay home. The morning after that lockdown, Peters saw a dramatic drop in those two daily traffic spikes in Rome. There was barely a rush hour any more. Those curves, at least, were flattening, and fast.

This wasn’t weather or people going on holidays. He could see the same pattern – a slow downward trend followed by a large and fairly sudden drop in traffic congestion – taking place in cities all over the world. “I want to be cautious in saying it’s because of the virus, because we don’t have that causality there, technically,” Peters said. “It definitely seems to be correlated,” he added. “I think you see the impact.”

By the second week of March, Peters began to see what was likely the effect of self-isolation, social distancing and the shuttering of shops, restaurants and offices in North American cities. Canada’s response to the pandemic could be seen in the traffic data, too.

TomTom/Handout

At 8 a.m. on the average Thursday in Montreal last year, traffic congestion was at 56 per cent, according to a metric TomTom calls its “congestion index.” That means a journey will take 56 per cent more time as a result of heavy traffic. For example, what would be a one-hour drive with free-flowing traffic takes one hour and 34 minutes at 8 a.m. on the average Thursday in Montreal.

In comparison, on Thursday, March 19, the streets were relatively empty. The congestion index had dropped dramatically, peaking at just 10 per cent, a massive reduction in morning rush-hour traffic. A few days earlier, on March 16, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had urged all Canadians to stay home as much as possible. It looks as though Montrealers heeded the call.

Montreal streets lay mostly empty on March 21, 2020, amid the coronavirus outbreak.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

In Vancouver last week, peak rush-hour congestion was down roughly 40 percentage points compared to the average weekday rush hour in 2019. In Calgary, it dropped roughly 25 percentage points. In Milan, the biggest city in Northern Italy, the congestion index dropped by as much as 64 percentage points as the country remained under lockdown.

In Toronto, the big drop-off in traffic volume was evident beginning around the same day Trudeau made the “stay home” announcement. During the Wednesday evening commute that week, the congestion index peaked at just 17 per cent. Compare that with an average of 72 per cent at the same time last year. A rush-hour commute that normally took 52 minutes would have taken 35 minutes. The roads were relatively empty.

“In North America, we have data on about 10 to 15 per cent of all cars driving around,” Peters said. Data are gathered on everyone from occasional drivers, to professional delivery drivers, to Uber drivers and commuters. In other words, the data are representative of what’s actually going on.

Downtown Vancouver, seen here on March 17, 2020, has seen its traffic disappear, much like that in major cities across the globe.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

You can see the effect of the pandemic on Google Maps or GPS navigation app Waze, too. Highways that are usually displayed as thick red lines across major cities at rush hour are now often green.

It bucks a global trend Peters has seen over the past few years. “We’ve seen traffic slowly increasing in most cities in the world,” he said.

There have been sudden drops in traffic before, because of road shutdowns owing to forest fires such as those in California last year, for example. But in Peters’ experience, sudden drops like that have always been regional, not worldwide.

“That traffic has been so low, on average, in so many cities, all over the world, for multiple days and weeks is absolutely …” Peters’ voice trailed off. “I’ve never seen that before.”

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