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Passenger vehicle travel rebounding to pre-pandemic levels

By David A. Lieb

The Associated Press

Americans may be rounding a corner — literally — in their response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The number of daily passenger vehicle trips has hit a major milestone, reaching pre-pandemic levels for the first time in a year, according to data provided to The Associated Press by the transportation analytics firm Inrix, with Americans driving more often and farther than at any time since pandemic lockdowns were invoked.

The rise in vehicle travel comes amid other encouraging health and economic indicators. Consumer spending and manufacturing have been picking up. Employers have been adding workers. Governors have been easing restrictions on indoor dining and social gatherings. More auto fuel is being purchased. The winter peak in COVID-19 cases has receded. And more than one-fourth of Americans have received at least one dose of a vaccine.

Some of the largest travel increases have occurred in rural, suburban and smaller metropolitan areas, Inrix transportation analyst Bob Pishue said.

In Pensacola, Florida, passenger vehicle miles traveled last April dipped to around 50% of the average levels of January and February 2020, before pandemic restrictions were imposed. The situation is significantly different this spring. On the weekend of March 20-21, passenger vehicle miles topped 150% of the pre-pandemic level, according to Inrix data.

“If you drove through downtown Pensacola a year ago, it was a ghost town — everything was closed,” said Kaycee Lagarde, the city’s public information officer. “Now if you go downtown, it basically looks normal as far as the number of people being out.”

Lagarde said the traffic surge appears to have been aided by tourists, who have returned to beaches that were temporarily closed last year.

In general, “higher travel is reflective of a good economy,” said Tim Lomax, a research fellow at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. “They are traveling for a purpose, whether that’s a job, retail or school.”

Last spring, many vehicles got parked for an extended stay as governors and mayors issued stay-at-home orders, schools went virtual and work sites shifted from offices to homes as a precaution intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

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