Here’s How Americans Are Returning to the Roads in 2021

Drivers are returning to the road, but how they are driving in 2021 has changed. Metromile data shows a new normal is emerging.

Drivers are springing back to the roads, Metromile data from the first three months of 2021 shows. 

The total number of miles driven across the U.S. surged in March 2021 compared to the same time last year, after months of continued slumps, according to an anonymized and aggregated sample of Metromile customers nationwide.

But as the U.S. recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, Metromile data shows life for many people may look different than it once did. Like the so-called “K-shaped” economic recovery, a bifurcation in driving and mobility is developing nationwide.

The recent driving behavior may be a good indication of a “new normal” as more people embrace flexible hybrid schedules for in-office work and use their cars differently than they had last year.

How has driving in the U.S. changed in 2021?

While driving recovered occasionally in 2020, notably in the summer and year-end, vehicle use remained low. Metromile customers nationwide collectively drove 30% fewer miles from April through December 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.

Early data showed signs these low levels would continue in 2021. 

Miles driven nationwide in January and February 2021 were both 28% lower year-over-year, not dissimilar from the 30% drop observed throughout 2020.

The situation changed dramatically in March. Drivers nationwide collectively put 19% more miles on their vehicles year-over-year and 20% more than February 2021.

Despite the recent rebound, mileage hasn’t yet returned to pre-pandemic levels. The total number of miles driven nationwide in March 2021 is 79% of the miles driven in February 2020.

People in Illinois and Washington state ramped up driving the most by 29% and 30% in March, respectively, from the year prior. The increased mileage might be a result of resumed commutes as large employers in both states reopened offices. Notably, tech giants encouraged employees working from home to return to their Seattle area campuses at the end of the month.

Californians and Oregonians added 19% and 16% more miles on their vehicles, respectively.

Smaller upturns in driving came from East Coast Metromile customers. The total number of miles driven in March 2021 grew by 18% in Pennsylvania, 12% in New Jersey, and 11% year-over-year in Virginia.  

Arizona, one of the last states to implement a stay-at-home order last year, saw the smallest increase in March 2021. Mileage in the Grand Canyon State rose by only 6% compared to the year before.

Will these new driving trends continue in 2021?

While the total number of miles driven is quickly approaching pre-pandemic levels, it is becoming more apparent how people drive has changed. A new normal may be developing.

People returning to the office may be in for a pleasant surprise: Drivers may find fewer congested roads, as people plan to commute less often than they did before. The trend will likely persist as employers embrace hybrid work schedules, and full-time remote work continues to be more accepted.

Already, the number of miles driven from January to March 2021 during the weekday morning rush hour of 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. fell by 15% year-over-year.

The changed behavior could be positive for road safety. Rush hour and evening driving are typically more risky journeys because of increased road congestion and poorer visibility, respectively.

Drivers have also shifted when they get into their vehicles to the weekend and the afternoon.

The increase in miles driven nationwide may be a result of road trips and other long-distance driving. Highway driving, as measured by miles driven 60 miles per hour or faster, grew considerably in the first three months of 2021 compared to the year before.

Metromile customers nationwide took 14% more trips to new locations more than 75 miles away in 2021, and the number of miles driven in trips 75 minutes or more soared by at least 25% year-over-year.

While miles driven nationwide increased recently, traffic levels remain at pre-pandemic lows. The number of miles driven at 30 miles per hour or slower is down — no matter the trip duration.

News headlines have also focused on the sharp increases in reckless driving and speeding as fewer cars are on the road during the pandemic. According to Metromile data, high-speed driving is most common in short trips between 15 and 30 minutes and on road trips of two hours or more.

While speeding 75 miles per hour more is up 74% from January to March 2021 compared to the previous year, there is some reversion to pre-pandemic norms emerging. 

Speeding in the first three months of 2021 has decreased by 32% compared to last spring, and the average speed of trips between 30 and 75 minutes has also reduced.

The bottom line

The COVID-19 pandemic created a nearly instant shift in the way people get around the United States. 

Local and state shelter-in-place and public health orders minted millions of new low-mileage drivers overnight, as many people limited their vehicle use to the bare minimum.

While some drivers may return to their pre-pandemic habits, Metromile data from the first three months of 2021 reveals how people return to the road has likely diverged. Emerging social trends, such as increased remote work and household moves to further away suburban and rural communities, may advance these changes and create different driving routines and a new normal going forward.