There's no question roads have been emptier over the past year as restrictions related to the coronavirus kept many workers and students at home and curtailed social outings and large events.

The upside was motorists saved a lot of time and money as congestion in the Twin Cities all but disappeared.

Drivers on average spent nine hours stuck in gridlock during 2020 compared with 52 hours the previous year, according to the 2020 Global Traffic Scorecard released this month by INRIX, a Kirkland, Wash.-based traffic analytics company.

Twin Cities motorists logged 23% fewer miles, peak speeds were up dramatically during rush hours and total crashes declined by a third.

All that pushed the metro down to 77th on the list of most traffic-riddled cities in America. In 2019, the metro checked in at No. 19, said INRIX researcher Bob Pishue.

"Last year was not your typical year or typical situation," he said.

With nobody venturing to jobs, sporting events or entertainment, downtown traffic through February was down 52% compared with pre-COVID levels, the scorecard found. The biggest drop in traffic occurred during the morning commute, Pishue said.

That boded well for motorists navigating the metro's most congestion-prone corridors.

The normally clogged I-35W through south Minneapolis moved a lot more swiftly.

Drivers experienced average delays of just over a minute a day during peak periods, compared with much longer setbacks during pre-pandemic times.

Commuters on the I-494 Bloomington strip, the Crosstown between I-35W and Hwy. 169, and on I-94 between I-394 and Hwy. 280 spent fewer than five hours last year sitting in traffic jams.

As drivers rolled, they saved money, Pishue said. Congestion cost the average driver $133 last year, down from $644 in 2019.

Drivers also drove faster. Speeds in the downtown area during the peak commute averaged 37 mph, up from 29 mph the previous year. The average included speeds on freeways, highways, county roads and city streets, Pishue said.

But drivers didn't exactly have the roads to themselves all the time. Traffic volumes during midday periods on weekdays and weekends have not dropped off. Motorists running errands, going to appointments or making recreational trips have kept traffic during off-peak times at levels similar to before COVID-19, Pishue said.

"COVID-19 has completely transformed when, where and how people move," Pishue said.

What's ahead? That will mostly depend on how soon employers bring workers back downtown and when other segments of the economy reopen. Traffic will be heaviest in the suburbs, Pishue said.

"We expect downtown trips will continue to lag suburban and rural travel through 2021," he said. "The last thing to come back will be the morning commute."

Signs of construction

Hennepin County crews are trimming and removing trees along Webber Parkway in north Minneapolis before this summer's "Webber 44" project to improve roads, sidewalks, lighting and parking in the area.

Work will begin April 12 on 44th Avenue between Penn and Fremont avenues and on Humboldt Avenue between 44th Avenue and Victory Memorial Drive. A virtual open house is set for April 7.

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