It’s Not Your Imagination—Traffic is Different Now

By Jeff Rutledge, Metromile Senior Communications Manager and Data Geek

Metromile’s Data Drivers Report | October 2021 edition

Metromile’s Data Drivers Report: October 2021 edition

No one is quite sure how to refer to this moment in time. Are we at the end of a pandemic, somewhere in the middle, or just getting started? Will I get tired of working from home and staring at endless Zooms? Whatever the case, many of us are settling into some version of a new normal, with new routines — especially with our driving habits, which took a big detour in mid-2020 and still haven’t quite stabilized.

When you price insurance fairly using actual individual behaviors, you tend to collect a data point or two, and our drivers’ collective time behind the wheel has given us a unique view of how driving for work, pleasure, travel, and everything in between has changed—maybe for good.

So, what does driving look like toward the end of 2021? I teamed up with our Data Science team to look at how Metromile customers are driving and shed light on some emerging trends.

Rush Hoursss have replaced Rush Hour. Commuting has definitely changed: morning and evening commutes are still a bit less intense, with peak traffic down 10% to 20% from pre-COVID levels. But if you’re like me, you might feel like you’re always in traffic these days. 

Here’s why: our research shows that drivers are starting and ending their commutes and school drop-offs at more varied times than they used to, meaning rush hour lasts longer. Not surprising given all the news about flex schedules and school bus concerns, but not great news if you’re looking to get somewhere quickly.

Mid-day can be me-time. Mid-day driving, meanwhile, is up as much as 5% in some markets, suggesting more daytime errands and/or more flexible family arrangements.

We’re driving faster than we used to. The average trip speed is elevated by about 3 to 4% across all trips, suggesting drivers are prioritizing different kinds of trips, encountering emptier roads (personally, I’d like to know where!), just losing patience, or some combination of all three.

Suburbs are having a moment. Total miles driven on urban roads has dropped 7 to 9% from this time in 2019, while suburban—and even some rural—miles have risen by a similar amount. This jives with the number of drivers taking notice of cost-saving insurance options, too; we’ve seen an increase as high as 5% in the number of suburbanites shopping for and purchasing pay-per-mile insurance during the past several months.

Back to school is…back. In 2021 we saw a clear increase in cars on the road as schools resumed in-person learning, commensurate with bumps we’ve observed in previous years. This customary surge was—as you might guess—dramatically smaller than usual in 2020, shrinking by about 20%.

We’re split into the drives and the drive-nots. Total miles driven have been creeping back to their 2019 levels, but all together we’re still driving 5-6% fewer miles than we were before COVID hit. But that’s not the whole story—far fewer drivers than before are accounting for all those miles—between 10% and 40% fewer depending on location and time of day. More than ever, we’re divided into the road warriors and the sofa soldiers.

Location is revealing (and so is age). While the trends above hold true across the board, we do see noticeably different behaviors across different states and metro areas. For example:

  • Peak rush hour traffic is only down about 5% in Arizona, Virginia, and Illinois, but closer to 20% in California and our other states.
  • Drivers in Portland haven’t gotten back behind the wheel quite as much as their peers in Seattle, and San Francisco-area drivers drive significantly more than both on a per-person basis.
  • Age matters too; Gen Z has driven fewer miles than normal, but far more than Boomers and the Silent Generation, perhaps reflecting occupation or a lower perceived risk of illness, while Millennials have shown modestly safer braking habits, possibly due to being more likely to drive with small children.

We’ll be back with more driving trends soon. Stay tuned for the next edition of our Data Drivers report!