2021 | Traffic

Montgomery County traffic returning to pre-pandemic levels on major roads

Secondary roads are still less traveled, county transportation official says

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The interchange of I-495 and Colesville Road.

Screenshot from Montgomery County Department of Transportation traffic camera

Traffic on interstates and state highways in Montgomery County is returning to volumes seen before the COVID-19 pandemic started in March 2020.

But a county transportation official said last week that volumes remain low on side streets.

According to State Highway Administration data from sensors, the average number of vehicles per day on I-270 at a particular point in the county was:

  • 171,336 for March 17-23, 2019
  • 126,708 for March 15-21, 2020
  • 161,824 for March 14-20, 2021

Similarly, the average daily number of vehicles on I-495 at a specific spot in the county was:

  • 229,146 for March 17-23, 2019
  • 153,304 for March 15-21, 2020
  • 195,920 for March 14-20, 2021

“Based on these numbers and the amount of traffic we can see when we’re driving, there is a gradual return to pre pandemic traffic volumes,” SHA spokeswoman Sherry Christian wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat last week.

Michael Paylor, the division chief for traffic engineering and operations in Montgomery County, told Bethesda Beat on Friday that the increase in traffic is not uniform throughout the county. Most arterial, secondary and tertiary roads are still experiencing lower volumes.

“It doesn’t surprise me that some of the major roads and the interstates are seeing a return to near normal, but still when you’re talking about the lower class of roadways, there isn’t that same return in every area,” he said.

Paylor said he thinks workers are starting to return to offices, but not to the extent that it would drive up traffic numbers to pre-pandemic levels.

“Some offices have returned to a full-time status and other offices are still in a hybrid status. And that’s part of the reason why I can say, anecdotally, why these volumes haven’t returned to normal,” he said.

Paylor added that the lack of in-person instruction in Montgomery County Public Schools for the past year has also played a role in the lower traffic numbers.

“When you see a full-scale return to school with teachers and parents doing that commute, I would say we’re probably going to see traffic volumes very close to normal on almost all the roads in the Montgomery County network,” he said.

The lower traffic volumes have afforded drivers less stress on the roads, but Paylor said that has caused them to drive faster and take risks.

“From the data that we’ve obtained, there are [people driving at] higher speeds, and coupled with that, folks aren’t wearing their seatbelts. And coupled with that, we’ve seen a lot more folks that have been abusing alcohol and driving,” he said.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com