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Iowa Roads Seeing Less Traffic During COVID-19 Pandemic

Katie Peikes
Traffic along U.S. 20 and Stone Avenue in Sioux City on Friday. The Iowa Department of Transportation has been tracking traffic through computers and sensors that record the traffic flow at more than 120 locations around the state.

Fewer cars have been traveling on state highways, county roads and city streets over the last month, according to traffic data that the Iowa Department of Transportation has been gathering to track how traffic has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Iowa Department of Transportation has been tracking this through computers and sensors that record the traffic flow at more than 120 locations around the state. Traffic on all types of roads saw a 20 percent decrease on March 14 (the Saturday of the first weekend that this data collection began), compared to data from the same day of the week last year.

The data from mid-March through April 15 shows an overall decrease in traffic, especially on the weekends. And there has been “successively more of a decrease” over time, said Jeff von Brown, the team leader for Iowa DOT’s modeling, forecasting and telemetrics team.

“There’s definitely a pattern being seen where on the weekends it’s generally greater decreases as people are staying home,” von Brown said, “but when the work week comes back around, there’s usually a rebound. But it’s a basic pattern that’s repeating itself.”

The sensors saw about a 37 percent decrease in traffic on all types of roads April 15 compared to roughly the same day a year ago. Von Brown said that is a big change.

“It is a considerable reduction that, unless there was an extraordinary circumstance, we probably wouldn’t see something among that magnitude,” von Brown said.

County roads are not seeing as big a change in traffic flow as the others. Von Brown said that could be because rural residents may still need to use those roads to access basic services.

Von Brown also noted that Easter Sunday on April 12 saw a huge dip in traffic, likely because of the snowfall across northern Iowa. Traffic declined more than 60 percent that day, compared to this time last year.

“There is a pattern that we can infer certain things, but not always directly attribute it as we’re comparing it against a similar time period in the past,” von Brown said.

Von Brown said there are pros and cons to having less traffic on the roads. One of the positives is that road construction crews have more flexibility to work at times they wouldn't normally work to finish projects. But people are buying less gasoline for their cars, which means there will be less funding for road projects in the near future.

Iowa does not have a formal statewide shelter-in-place order. However, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds announced on Thursday that starting at midnight, the northeast region of Iowa will have stricter stay-at-home measures in place, likely decreasing traffic flow even more in that area.

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.