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Traffic plunges across Nebraska amid pandemic. But are we still driving too much?

Traffic plunges across Nebraska amid pandemic. But are we still driving too much?

Traffic across Nebraska has plummeted on streets and highways as people shelter to fight the novel coronavirus.

Different counts suggest Dodge Street traffic through central Omaha has dropped by half, while Interstate traffic is down by 41% from Lincoln to Iowa.

The data shows an incredible turn as society pivots in response to the pandemic. But amid the calls to stay home for the greater good, the figures also raise the question: Are people still driving too much?

Unacast, an international analytics company that uses cellphone location data, has created a “Social Distancing Scoreboard” rating the United States, individual states and counties on how much they’re cutting their travel and nonessential visits.

Nebraska rates a C- for its behavioral changes, although it’s unclear how traffic from the continued flow of vital interstate trucking traffic factors into the state’s grade. Douglas County rates a C.

Greg Youell, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency, said he drove down a nearly empty Dodge Street one evening recently, and it felt almost eerie.

But he said the traffic that remains is often the people who need to take their trips the most, including doctors, nurses and people supporting vital services.

“It’s good that they’re there,” Youell said, “and it’s kind of a lifeline for keeping everything going in this unprecedented time.”

Tuesday, the Nebraska Department of Transportation released traffic figures showing the slowdown cascade through March.

In the first week of March, traffic volumes were up 2% compared with the March average for the three-year period from 2016 to 2018. By the third week of March, traffic was down 19%, and then 29% by last week.

The Interstate showed the biggest drops. Traffic was down 41% on Interstate 80 from Lincoln to Iowa and in Omaha on Interstates 480 and 680. Traffic volume was down 36% on I-80 west of Lincoln.

Other Douglas County and Sarpy County highways and streets were down 28% by the end of March.

The data comes from the department’s system of 67 automated, continuous traffic counters across the state.

Kyle Schneweis, the Department of Transportation’s director, said Nebraska’s freight traffic remains at near-normal levels. He said the department will continue analyzing the data to understand the impacts and trends.

Jeff Riesselman, the City of Omaha’s traffic engineer, said the city is looking at its available traffic numbers, too. They appear to be in line, he said, with the state’s figures and traffic numbers nationally.

Wednesday, the city released a collection of traffic figures compared with the last week of February. The numbers were measured at three intersections with radar detection signals:

  • 144th Street and West Center Road: -44%
  • 72nd and Grover Streets: -39%
  • 120th and L Streets: -36%

On Dodge Street between 69th and 93rd Streets, traffic volumes were down 52%. On 84th Street from Center Street to Lincoln Street in Papillion, volumes were down 35%.

For Douglas County, the Unacast scoreboard indicates that the average distance traveled was down about 47%. According to the company, nonessential trips in Douglas County were down about 61%.

Omaha World-Herald: Afternoon Update

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