Boston’s ‘soul-crushing’ traffic creeping back after pandemic dip

Traffic that plummeted last year as workers were sent home and businesses closed is creeping back onto Boston streets, and advocates are warning of worse congestion to come.

“We should expect gridlock and congestion that’s the same if not worse than it was before the pandemic,” said Stacy Thompson, executive director of the LivableStreets Alliance. “People should expect to have a rough time on Boston streets.”

Traffic congestion has nearly returned to 2019 levels as of this week around Boston, state Department of Transportation Highway Division data shows.

In Randolph, congestion is already back on par with pre-pandemic levels with a difference of less than 1%.

Chris Dempsey, director of Transportation for Massachusetts, said the data shows the “soul-crushing traffic” that plagued Greater Boston before the pandemic is staging a comeback.

Boston saw one of the more dramatic drops in congestion of any city in the U.S. amid the pandemic, with traffic dropping 87% between February and April 2020. The drop knocked the Hub back to No. 4 on analytics company Inrix’s list of cities with the worst traffic congestion after two straight years sitting in the top spot.

Dempsey said managing the region’s congestion problem has implications for the state’s recovery.

“The economy doesn’t work without a transit system that works,” he said.

Gov. Charlie Baker has commissioned a $1.6 million report from consulting group McKinsey to study the “future of work” in a post-pandemic world.

The report is due to the Baker administration any day, but safe streets advocates say the “passive” approach means the government has already missed an opportunity.

“We should be enacting policy to create the future we want,” Thompson said. “The governor really sat on his hands and we are seeing the result of that now.”

Thompson said conversations about managed lanes that stagger pricing based around rush hour and getting T service back in full should be top priority.

Traffic is on the uptick nationwide as more people get vaccinated, with 60% more people expected to travel this Memorial Day weekend than last year, according to AAA. With about 37 million travelers, it’s still about 6 million less than pre-pandemic numbers, but signals a desire among Americans to get back to normal.

“This pent-up demand will result in a significant increase in Memorial Day travel, which is a strong indicator for summer, though we must all remember to continue taking important safety precautions,” said Paula Twidale of AAA.

About 1.7 million New Englanders hit the road over the holiday weekend, according to AAA estimates.