Denver traffic ranks 15th worst — but is better than pre-pandemic

Metro Denver’s traffic congestion is on track to be the 15th worst in the nation this year, a new study concluded — despite commuters losing less time to gridlock than they did before the pandemic.

Drivers in the metro area will spend an average 40 hours stuck in traffic in 2021, according to the Global Traffic Scorecard released Tuesday by Inrix Research, a global mobility data company. That’s up from 24 hours last year, when the rapid onset of the pandemic resulted in stay-at-home orders that cleared area highways of congestion for a time.

This year’s average time in traffic still is on pace to fall short of the 63 hours that Inrix estimated the average driver spent in 2019, a 36% gap. The company’s analysts based the calculation on congestion tracking during the first 10 months of 2021.

The pandemic continues to scramble many commute patterns, transportation experts say, with rush hours spiking less severely and traffic volumes spread more evenly throughout the day. Many of the white-collar employees who normally would commute to downtowns each day still are working from home or have adjusted to hybrid schedules.

Nonetheless, Denver’s rush hours have notably returned as more office workers have resumed commuting — and the rankings show traffic is returning faster than in some similarly choked cities. Denver 15th-place ranking came in higher than its No. 16 spot on Inrix’s 2020 list and its No. 21 ranking in 2019.

Nationally, the average driver will spend 64% less time in traffic this year compared to two years ago, Inrix found.

New York City ranked first for congestion impact (with 102 hours of congestion delay), followed by Chicago (104 hours) and Philadelphia (90 hours). The impact rankings are weighted by city size. Perennial congestion leader Boston came in fourth, with its average time spent in traffic, at 78 hours, still 47% below the pre-pandemic level.

“The most notable change to commuting during the pandemic — other than reduced travel times and volumes — was the lack of downtown travel,” Bob Pishue, an Inrix transportation analyst, said in a news release.

In that analysis, Denver is running closer to pre-pandemic levels than most cities. Inrix estimated downtown trips were 10% below 2019 levels in Denver this year, compared to an average 22% below normal nationally.

A big caveat for Denver is that road travel has recovered much more quickly than transit ridership, which remains below 60% of pre-pandemic levels, according to data from the Regional Transportation District. That means commuters are more willing to drive than board a train or bus.

Less overall congestion has had some deadly consequences, with experts citing higher speeds as a likely factor in the growth of fatal crashes.

“While many countries in Western Europe reported fewer fatalities on streets and motorways, early estimates from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that January to June 2021 recorded the largest six-month fatality increase in history, an 18.4% jump over 2020,” Pishue wrote in a blog post this week.

The Colorado Department of Transportation said last week that 2021 was on track to be “the deadliest year on Colorado roads since 2004,” with 617 road fatalities so far.

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