SoCal traffic jams returning, gas prices rising as pandemic eases

People are driving at up to 95% of pre-pandemic levels this month - and more drivers means more demand for gas.

BySid Garcia and Grace Manthey KABC logo
Thursday, April 22, 2021
SoCal traffic congestion returning to pre-pandemic levels
People are driving at up to 95% of pre-pandemic levels this month, traffic numbers show. And more people driving creates more demand for gas.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Back when the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns first hit Southern California, traffic dropped to unprecedented lows.

But now fewer restrictions, more vaccinations and in-person school are leading to more drivers on the road - which could also be driving up gas prices.

"Nationally we're seeing travel start to pick up and most of it is back to pre-COVID levels," said Bob Pishue, transportation analyst at INRIX, a transportation data firm.

Vehicle miles traveled - that is, the amount people are driving - hit a weekly average of 95% of pre-pandemic levels in April of this year in Los Angeles and Orange counties, according to data from INRIX. That's the highest number since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last April, the weekly average hit a low of 42% of pre-pandemic levels in the LA area.

By the end of June, vehicle miles were up to 80% of normal, and hovered there until about March of this year.

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"People are taking longer trips and they're taking more trips, which has led to the increases that we've seen in the last couple of weeks," Pishue said.

Drivers are taking multiple trips, he said, like going to the grocery store and then picking up the kids. As a result, trips are 10% to 20% longer on average, according to Pishue.

And although the amount people are driving seems to be getting back to normal, specific trips during different times of the day aren't quite back to pre-pandemic volumes.

LA's morning commute, Pishue said, is only up to 61% of pre-COVID levels. Afternoon trips, for comparison, are up to 81% of normal.

"So just like the rest of the country, Los Angeles is lagging in that morning commute period and a lot of drivers probably see that on the roadway," he said.

Despite this variability, more traffic means more demand for gas, which can drive up prices.

As of April 20, AAA gas price data shows an average of just over $4 in Los Angeles, about $1.13 more than this time last year.

"We just hope that with these prices being higher right now that we're going to get some relief soon," said Doug Shupe from AAA.

"And that is possible that we're going to see these prices leveling off in the next week or so as domestic inventory increases," he said.

Pishue said on the travel demand side, he doesn't expect huge increases or decreases anytime soon, even as students start to return to the classroom.

"We're kind of on the wait and see, in terms of school. It's not like two years ago, where you know, on the same day, everyone was going back to class at 8 a.m. or 9 a.m.," he said.

With many districts staggering start times and morning commute volumes still being relatively low, Pishue said he predicts schools returning to in-person instruction may not make a huge difference.

"It might in very concentrated areas like a downtown or something like that, but in general, probably won't see much of a difference in the morning," he said.