UK road traffic back at pre-Covid levels

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3rd June 2021

Road traffic in the UK returned to pre-pandemic levels during the last week of May 2021, according to the latest Department for Transport (DfT) statistics, though the data shows an ongoing reduction in bus and train journeys.

The DfT issues weekly figures for different modes and compares them to a suitably ‘normal’ baseline. Vehicle traffic is analysed using 275 automated sites across the UK, chosen to be representative of the entire road network, and this is compared to the first week of February 2020 – before the pandemic began affecting travel patterns.

During the five working days of the last week of May, traffic levels were at an average 98% of the the February 2020 baseline – the highest levels since early March 2020. A subsequent spike in usage during the bank holiday weekend pushes the seven-day average to 101%, with cars, light commercial vehicles and heavy goods vehicles all recording an increase.

Comparative increases were highest among light commercial vehicles, in part due to ongoing demand for home delivery services and work-related travel. LCV traffic returned to pre-pandemic levels shortly after Easter 2021, but has been consistently closer to normal than passenger cars throughout the last 15 months. During the working week, van traffic was at 109% of the baseline level.

Usage of passenger cars almost halved as national lockdowns were introduced in January but picked up as restrictions were relaxed in March and April. In the working week of May 2021, passenger car traffic was at an average of 93% of February 2020 levels. That compares to 88% during the last week of April, which was also the run-up to a bank holiday.

Recovery of public transport use – which is still operating on reduced capacity due to social distancing – is happening more slowly. Provisional data shows an average 54% reduction in rail journeys for the last week of May (compared to the same period in 2019), and a 34% reduction in travel by bus (compared to the third week of January 2020).

Separate figures issued for Transport for London were similar; a 53% reduction in rail journeys and 35% for buses. The government issued its third funding package to TfL on Tuesday, in a bid to support services operating with reduced capacity.

Active travel modes were slightly down on pre-pandemic levels – potentially due to poor weather. Cycling doubled in April and May 2020, but the latest available data (17th-23rd May 2021) reflects a 13% reduction compared to the first week of March 2020.

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