Entering a second month with grocery store shelves emptied of toilet paper and other essential goods while state officials scramble to respond to the record-breaking pace of unemployment claims — some may assume the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis is all doom and gloom.
But unprecedented lifestyle disruptions foisted on Maricopa County’s estimated 4.3 million residents may be creating some arguably beneficial affects across the Valley, even as residents struggle to make rent, stay safe and adapt to quarantine.
Based on data compiled by travel time analytics company INRIX, the Maricopa County Association of Governments reports remarkably lower rates of traffic congestion and pollution over the past weeks as the price of gas continues to plummet.
Eric Anderson, executive director at MAG, explained the impact of social distancing on roadway traffic across the Valley in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak.
“COVID-19 began affecting travel behavior in our region roughly around the second week of March,” Mr. Anderson stated. “As nonessential workers began telecommuting, schools closed, and people began staying home and off the roads, the overall traffic volume in the region has now been reduced by one-third.”
For those essential workers still engaging in the usual daily commute, the roadways look more like a quiet Christmas morning than the typical weekday slog.
“Traffic congestion is pretty much gone. Fewer cars means less congestion. For instance, the daily congestion delay in the region has dropped by more than 50 percent. This means that travelers currently experience no significant congestion during any time of the day,” Mr. Anderson stated.
He said the dramatic traffic reduction likely reflects not only a drop in daily commutes, but an overall change in how area residents conduct their daily lives.
“Passenger car traffic has dropped significantly. This is likely the result of not only fewer people going to work, but a decrease in all trips, such as people taking their kids to school, going shopping, visiting friends, or driving to entertainment destinations,” Mr. Anderson stated.
According to MAG’s analysis — which is available at their website: azmag.gov — the following changes are evident on area roads:
While personal travel time may have tapered significantly, commercial traffic seems to have continued with far less disruption, Mr. Anderson explained.
“Unlike passenger car traffic, traffic of heavy trucks for freight transportation has stayed consistent. This is likely because shipments of groceries, fuel, medical equipment, home deliveries and other such freight has not been significantly interrupted,” he stated. “MAG is closely monitoring the data and we will continue to analyze it for trends and takeaways as we move forward and eventually out of this crisis.”
Easier commutes may not be the only silver lining, since satellite data suggests less traffic may correlate with better air quality.
Processing data from the European Union’s Sentinel-5 Precursor satellite — a more than 1,800-pound device, which was launched in 2017 to measure atmospheric pollution — MAG estimates a reduction in nitrogen dioxide emissions in the Valley of more 10.5% between March 1 and March 21.
Added to the air mainly by cars, trucks and other fuel-burning equipment, nitrogen dioxide makes it harder to breath and can lead to chronic health conditions and hospitalizations, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“Breathing air with a high concentration of NO2 can irritate airways in the human respiratory system. Such exposures over short periods can aggravate respiratory diseases, particularly asthma, leading to respiratory symptoms (such as coughing, wheezing or difficulty breathing), hospital admissions and visits to emergency rooms,” officials state at the agency’s website: epa.gov.
And like coronavirus, the harmful effects of the pollutant can target vulnerable populations already at risk to respiratory issues.
“Longer exposures to elevated concentrations of NO2 may contribute to the development of asthma and potentially increase susceptibility to respiratory infections. People with asthma, as well as children and the elderly, are generally at greater risk for the health effects of NO2,” the website states.
Among other factors, reduced travel has cut demand for gasoline, leading to better prices at the pump for drivers in Arizona and across the country.
The Brent Crude index, considered the international benchmark, fell from a March 10 high of $37.22 per barrel to $22.76 per barrel on March 30, a drop of more than 28%, according to nadsaq.com.
The barrel price had reached $68.91 as recently as January; the price had peaked at $84.80 in October 2018.
According to AAA, the national average price for regular gas has fallen from $2.38 per gallon one month ago to $1.90 per gallon as of April 9. This represents a 20% reduction.
The average in Arizona April 9 was $2.32 per gallon, having topped $2.73 per gallon on average just a month earlier — a drop of 41 cents or 15%.
Demand for gasoline is at its lowest in three decades, according to an April 6 report from officials at AAA, which suggested prices will remain lower for a while at least.
“On the week, pump prices continued to push less expensive with gasoline demand registering at its lowest point since 1993. The latest Energy Information Administration weekly report puts demand at 6.7 million barrels per day — a nearly 30 year low — and it’s likely to push lower as Americans are urged to stay at home at least until the beginning of May,” the report states.
And though the international market price for crude has been making slight gains recently, continued weak demand among U.S. drivers will probably keep the price at the pump lower.
“This week, market analysts are watching crude oil prices, which started to increase at the end of last week,” stated AAA spokeswoman Jeanette Casselano in the report. “However, given the low demand readings, increases in crude aren’t likely to have an impact on gas prices in the near-term.”