Five days a week, Shawna Smith makes the trip from Burnsville to her job as an office administrator at Tranquility Dental in St. Louis Park. And just about every day, she finds herself stuck in traffic.
Interstate 394 to Hwy. 100 can be really bad, she said. "It doesn't matter what time you go."
Bottlenecks are back. After traffic volumes dropped precipitously at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving freeways largely free-flowing as many stayed home, gridlock is once again part of the Twin Cities commuting experience.
Last year, Twin Cities drivers spent 26 hours stuck in snarls, nearly double the amount of time they spent sitting in traffic in 2021, according to the Seattle-based traffic analytics company INRIX, which recently released its 2022 Traffic Scorecard measuring the severity of congestion in more than 1,000 cities in 50 countries.
That's still not as bad as 2019, when metro area drivers spent the equivalent of more than two whole days — 52 hours — inching along, and the Twin Cities landed on INRIX's list of one of the top 25 bottlenecked cities in America. This year, the metro area checked in at No. 32.
But after two years of almost nonexistent congestion, commuters like Smith are encountering traffic jams more often, and at more untraditional times of day.
"We are seeing a lot more traffic in the middle of the day," said Tiffany Dagon, director of MnDOT's Regional Traffic Management Center in Roseville. "There has been a shifting in times."
Drivers are now less likely to encounter congestion during morning commutes — a time of day when traffic volumes have been slower to rebound since pandemic restrictions have eased. But traffic volumes have increased at night, extending evening rush hours beyond the typical 6 p.m. end time.
MnDOT defines congestion as when traffic moves at 45 mph or less on highways and freeways. With the onset of the pandemic in 2020, Twin Cities roads were congested just 1.4% of the time. In 2021, the percentage of time roads were considered congested rose to 5.8%, according to MnDOT.
"A small percentage change can make a big difference," Dagon said. "We are definitely seeing more congestion than a year ago."
Andrew Owen, a researcher with the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota, said some of the rise in congestion could be attributed to a decline in transit use. Before the pandemic, Metro Transit ridership peaked at more than 250,000 rides every weekday. Now it's half that, according to figures posted on the agency's website.
"Many trips in the region moved off of transit during the pandemic," Owen said. "A big share of those became car trips, and it looks like not many of them have switched back."
That's put more solo drivers on the roads and squeezed them into fewer lanes. Fewer drivers have been using EZ Pass lanes, which are reserved for carpools with two or more people, motorcycles, buses and motorists who pay to use the special lanes during rush hours, Dagon said.
Meanwhile, the number of delivery service vehicles ferrying goods for Amazon, Target and smaller firms has exploded, said Patrick Ferret, director of operations for Street Fleet Courier and Logistics in Roseville.
"The demand has grown to have more things delivered," Ferret said. "My industry has added more vehicles to the road. There is no doubt there are more people on the road."
It's hard to say whether congestion will continue to grow, plateau or fall off in the coming months and years, Dagon said.
"It depends on things like teleworking," she said. "Are employers going to want people to come back to the office more? We don't know."