Are traffic levels at pre-Covid levels or higher?

The return of rush hour

Traffic: it’s back. Like it or not, congestion morning and night has returned. Deserted roads were one of the few positives of a pandemic, and, let’s face it, there weren’t many to be found. So rush hour – please forgive us for not welcoming you back with open arms.


Absent friend or foe, the return of heavy traffic could make you question your own driving skills and confidence. But RoadHow’s ready to support you in getting back behind the wheel.


Working from home, shop closures and international travel bans during the pandemic all affected how much we reached for our cars on a daily basis. Are we still feeling the impact of these changes in UK traffic levels, or have they reverted back to pre-pandemic heights?


As the pandemic kicked in and restrictions were enforced, traffic reached levels unseen since 1955. Britain was brought to an almost standstill as people stayed at home and road use plummeted by as much as 73%. Images of the normally gridlocked early morning M1 in March 2020 show solitary lorries trundling along, claiming victory of the road as they delivered essential supplies. Toilet rolls, no doubt.


Rewind just six months further, to October 2019, and that same stretch of motorway would have been back-to-back with commuters desperate to reach workplaces on time for a hard day’s graft ahead. 


Eighteen months on and early September 2021 saw big changes again. Schools re-opened and large companies urged staff to head back to their offices. Rush hour came back with a vengeance, soaring beyond pre-pandemic heights. Figures show the number of vehicles on the road in areas from London to Liverpool was far higher than in 2019.


Perhaps lack of confidence among commuters to use public transport could be to blame, but stats for trains, buses and London Underground all indicate numbers are almost back to normal.


Could it be the change in online consumer habits driving more vehicles to the roads? Perhaps. With lingering uncertainty about the virus, many people are still avoiding visits to shops and retail experts forecast that many shopping online for the first time in 2020 will continue doing so. Couriers and delivery vans could rule the roads soon.  


International travel restrictions certainly played their part in clogging up Britain’s roads over the summer as more holiday makers opted to jolly in Blighty rather than attempt to untangle the complicated procedures in place. As (almost) everyone and their dog headed to Cornwall, the A30 saw a 47% increase in traffic compared to the same period in 2019. Next summer will be interesting to see as confidence and restrictions should be closer to ‘normal’.


Lockdown certainly brought some benefits as air quality improved and empty streets encouraged the nation to take to their bikes, but figures are already indicating this was all short-term. Is the recent rise in road use merely people clambering for that freedom and sense of normality that’s been missing for 18 months, or is the increase here to stay?