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State traffic down, not as much as hoped

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

For weeks, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has pleaded with New Mexicans to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus by staying home.

Commenters to her social media page often urged her to get tougher. Others were dismissive.

“Stay at home order??? That’s a joke because NO ONE is staying home,” one woman said.

“Give us the facts. … I see very few staying home,” another commenter said.

But newly released state data shows that travel in New Mexico has dropped by 33 percent from pre-COVID-19 days. The low of 60% of normal came on April 12, Easter Sunday, after a series of restrictive state public health orders kicked in.

In the Albuquerque area, a preliminary study of traffic counts shows a decrease of 40% to 60% compared with last year. That mirrors data from a national firm that tracks vehicle miles driven, which found more than a 70% drop in Albuquerque since mid-March, when the COVID-19 crisis hit.

The overall 33 percent statewide drop, assessed from third-party collected cellphone data, is less than what officials fighting the outbreak had hoped to achieve.

In fact, one state map from April 27 gave that size of reduction a grade of F. All counties on the map got that grade except for Los Alamos County, which scored a D.

“I think we set the scoring system too high,” said Dr. David Scrase, Cabinet secretary of the state Human Services Department. “But we brought down mobility by one-third, and that helps.”

Now a big question is how travel – and the potential for virus spread – may surge with the governor’s decision last week to ease restrictions on some types of outings and shopping. The governor’s order permits visits to state parks, golfing, and curbside sales by some businesses labeled nonessential.

As the governor announced lifting some restrictions Thursday, she urged New Mexicans to “avoid unnecessary travel.” Patronize curbside services now open, Lujan Grisham said, but “don’t go out gratuitously.”

“There’s a lot of apprehension out there,” said Martin Morzynski, VP of Marketing at StreetLight Data, a national firm that tracks vehicle miles driven for government entities and others. “We think it’s going to be gradual. We’re not going to see a massive return (of travel).” His company noted more than a 70 percent drop in Bernalillo County traffic.

Yet, statewide and in Albuquerque, there’s been an uptick in recent weeks, Morzynski told the Journal on Friday.

Perhaps people are starting to go back to work, he said. “Or, maybe they are restless.”

Knowing the “single most important intervention” for reducing transmission of the highly contagious disease is social distancing, Scrase said state officials wanted a “reasonable measure” to assess the degree to which people were staying home.

So through the Santa Fe-based firm Descartes Labs, the state analyzed aggregate cellphone data as to the average number of miles driven by ZIP code. Those who drove more than 50 miles, such as those who were likely to be long-distance truckers or in the supply chain, were excluded.

Scrase said state officials hoped to stem the spread of the virus by reducing travel by 60 percent. He said that now, “we are sort of moving away from grading.”

Another state analysis shows travel dropped steadily after the governor began to enact public health orders, beginning with the ban on mass gatherings of 100 or more people on March 12. And Scrase said that helped reduce the impact of the virus.

Nathan Masek, senior transportation planner at the Mid-Region Council of Governments, looked at traffic counts on four Albuquerque corridors since the COVID-19 outbreak. His ongoing study showed 40 to 60 percent less traffic.

“There’s a pretty significant drop in the a.m., but the midday and the p.m. doesn’t drop as much,” Masek told the Journal. He attributes much of the lower volume to the reduction in work trips.

Albuquerque police Sgt. Mike Loftis said his 16-officer motor unit has noticed less traffic on city streets during the day and at night.

“There’s significantly lower volume of traffic compared to the normal level,” Loftis said.

Scrase said state officials will continue to monitor whether New Mexicans take to the streets in the weeks ahead and by how much.

“If you think of the virus as a hostile dog that you encounter outside barking at you, one thing you know not to do is to make any sudden moves, right? You try to stay calm. You don’t jerk. You don’t run. You move slowly, and that’s what we need to do here. No sudden moves.”

Though some may begin to venture out, Scrase said, “I think they’re going to be a lot of us average New Mexicans like me … that are going to stay safe. I think I’m going to stay at home.”


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