Since the COVID-19 shutdown began in March, Los Angeles’s legendary traffic has been on hiatus. Streets are quiet, commute times have shrunk and there is even plenty of curbside parking. But the reductions are lopsided: In some neighborhoods, the roads are practically empty; in others, the rumble of traffic is still present.
Crosstown examined daily vehicle-volume data in Los Angeles and several neighboring cities for Wednesday, May 20, and compared it with daily volumes from five months earlier, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The divergent traffic patterns that emerged offer a clue into how the COVID-19 restrictions have affected areas differently.
The essential worker commute
In the more residential, higher-income areas of northwest Los Angeles, including Woodland Hills, Brentwood and Westwood, traffic has dropped to around 70% below normal levels. Meanwhile, in areas south of the I-10 freeway, including Inglewood, Westmont and Vermont-Knolls, it has fallen by only 57% of the pre-COVID-19 volume.
Traffic in Los Angeles is a unique beast, and there are numerous reasons why one area might be bumper-to-bumper while in others, cars are moving quickly. The neighborhoods in south Los Angeles where traffic has fallen less are generally denser, have more commercial activity and have lower-income residents than those in the northwest.
Many essential workers, such as supermarket cashiers, home-care assistants and construction workers, are clustered at the lower-end of the wage scale.
Daniel Flaming, president of the Economic Roundtable, a think tank that researches urban policy issues, noted that some of these neighborhoods with higher traffic levels are home to many of these essential workers.
He added: “Having high housing density, along with the necessity to keep on going to work and having a higher risk of infection, increases the chances that the entire household will become infected.”
For the comparison, we used vehicle-volume data on major arterial roadways, such as Wilshire or Ventura Boulevards. By comparing the number of vehicles during a specific hour of the week, 8 to 9 a.m. on Monday, for example, to a normal volume, it’s possible to determine how much traffic levels have fallen on a particular day vs. what normal volumes would be. Traffic patterns can fluctuate from day to day. For this story, we compared the numbers from Wednesday, May 20, with traffic volumes from five months earlier.
The data was compiled as part of the ADMS project by the Integrated Media Systems Center at the University of Southern California. IMSC is a partner in Crosstown.
There are many variations in traffic patterns throughout Los Angeles. In middle-class neighborhoods like Sherman Oaks, Koreatown and Silverlake, traffic has dropped by 70% compared with five months earlier – nearly as much as it had in the wealthy enclave of northwestern Los Angeles. Even in less affluent areas like Boyle Heights, traffic had dropped by nearly two-thirds as of Wednesday, May 20.
“I don’t know for a fact what it represents, but my assumption is that [people are] driving because they’re involved in some kind of work, or are seeking work, or are involved in essential services,” said Edward Avol, professor of clinical preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California and an expert in how air pollution impacts public health. “The implication is that they’re potentially placing themselves at risk and are more exposed in this time of pandemic.”
According to Unacast, a firm which uses cell phone signals and other data to track movement, Los Angeles County earned a F on its COVID-19 social distancing scoreboard, which measures stay-at-home compliance across the country. That was near the bottom of the list among California’s 58 counties.
How we did it: We examined data from the ADMS Project traffic map to track traffic volumes for various neighborhoods. We compared current daily volume data for each area with traffic volume from five months prior. Learn more about our data here.
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