It should have been the best news ever: Traffic, vanished across Oahu.

Go ahead, pull up Google Maps on your phone. There’s nothing but little green lines weaving across the screen to indicate clear roads. No need to use the Waze app to find the fastest route.

Pearlridge, Middle Street merge, Punahou exit — it’s all wide open, all the time. It has never been easier to get into town in the morning and then get home to your family at night.

It’s the dream. It’s what we always wanted, right?

Yet driving around the island these days is eerie and somber. Turns out a global pandemic involving a highly contagious virus — one that has prompted mass quarantine and erased thousands of local jobs — was not a great way to solve Oahu’s traffic woes.

“This is definitely not the way we want to get to a free-flow condition,” said Ed Sniffen, deputy director for the state Highways Division. “It’s a horrific situation, where all of us will know somebody who gets affected by this because they lost their job or lost hours.”

On a recent weekday morning, it took less than 20 minutes to get from Kapolei to the Vineyard Boulevard exit on the H-1. The Zipper lane wasn’t even deployed. Normally, that spells doom for west-siders trying to get into town.

Instead, the traffic cruised along faster than I’d ever witnessed at that hour.

To be sure, that’s not entirely a bad thing. The clear roads suggest Oahu residents are largely following state and county orders to stay home in attempts to slow the spread of COVID-19. Public health experts say that will help ease the strain on hospitals, giving those people severely stricken by the respiratory disease a better chance to recover.

However, a lot of those missing cars represent the staggering 160,000-plus jobless claims that Hawaii has seen as of Thursday, just a few weeks into the pandemic crisis.

The state’s Department of Transportation reports that daily traffic counts are down nearly 50% along some of the H-1 freeway’s most heavily traveled corridors compared to last year.

Maybe 50% doesn’t sound that dramatic. Maybe you thought the number would be higher, given the circumstances. But transportation experts say a mere 5% reduction is the difference between gridlock and smoothly flowing traffic.

“You see it every year when UH is out of session,” Sniffen said.

Meanwhile, on the neighbor islands, which rely more heavily on tourism, the traffic counts have decreased by more than half in some places.

Nationwide, “we’ve never seen anything like what we’re experiencing right now,” said Trevor Reed, an analyst at the Kirkland, Washington-based traffic consulting firm INRIX.

By mid-March, the nation’s 25 largest metro areas — places usually snarled by traffic — were all in a “free-flow” during rush hour, Reed said. Cities like Los Angeles that are notorious for traffic have no traffic.

“Everything has just nosedived,” he added.

Traffic Tells The Story

This unprecedented pandemic shows just how well traffic conditions can illustrate a tanking economy.

The COVID-19 pandemic also offers a glimpse of what’s possible when employment isn’t so dependent on transportation, with so many people working from home these days.

Last week, Hawaii’s DOT started to post recent traffic counts on its website, chronicling the steep dive to show how the virus is taking a toll on everyday life.

State officials also hope to eventually use that traffic data to measure how well Hawaii’s economic recovery goes once the coronavirus crisis passes, Sniffen said.

The counts, he said, can help gauge how well stimulus dollars and other economic strategies work to get things moving again.

Right now, the checkpoints used for DOT’s traffic counts mostly reflect commercial centers where locals work, Sniffen said.

As the economy rebounds and visitors return to the state in greater numbers, the agency plans to add more checkpoints at popular tourist destinations, he added.

Marcel Wayfinding Traffic Side by Side Coronavirus COVID-19
Traffic during the morning commute on the H-1 is virtually nonexistent during the COVID-19 crisis. On the left, cars travel eastbound toward Aiea in November 2018. On the right, cars cruise past Pearl City in March 2020. 

Sniffen said he hopes the “work-from-home” culture that’s developing during the pandemic will largely persist once it ends, helping to reduce cars on the roads.

For years, DOT has been pushing more flexible work schedules and working from home as ways to take the strain off of Oahu’s overburdened roads and highways.

That might not be an option for Hawaii’s hotel workers and other hospitality employees, but it could be for those who work office jobs in downtown Honolulu, he said.

After the pandemic passes, Sniffen said he plans to discuss work-from-home options with other public agencies and local industry leaders. He hopes “to remind them what it could be like when we start utilizing the technologies we’ve already perfected under this COVID situation to stay productive.”

In many cases, those productivity expectations could be established in advance so that supervisors wouldn’t need to monitor their employees in person, and workers wouldn’t lose hours of their day fighting traffic to get to the office.

Not everything has to go back to the way it was.

Maybe in exchange for surviving a deadly pandemic and the worst unemployment of their lifetime, the least Oahu residents should get back are more flexible work options — and better traffic on the H-1.

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