5/28/2020 | 2 MINUTE READ

The Politics of Driving During a Pandemic

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Travel is down all over, but red staters are logging more miles


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                                                                Getty Images

The last three months have been clear sailing on roads across the U.S., with Americans largely sheltering in place and working at home.

But the traffic decline has varied widely by state…and possibly by political affiliation.

Color-Coded Results

In an analysis of data from the Federal Highway Administration measured against the Cook Political Report’s state classifications, researcher Michael Sivak found that year-over-year vehicle miles traveled (VMT) during March fell:

  • 21% in states categorized as solid or likely Democrat (blue)
  • 15% in solid or likely Republican (red) states
  • 17% in toss-up or lean Republican/lean Democrat states

Blue-state Vermont had the largest decline (26%), while travel in Republican stronghold Wyoming slipped just 9%. Overall volume was down 19% in the U.S. in March vs. the same period in 2019, falling to 221 billion vehicle miles.

Rural/City Bias?

Sivak acknowledges that some of the VMT difference can be attributed to a state’s population density and concentration. States with a Democratic preference tend to be more urban than their Republican counterparts.

electoral college ratings

Source: Cook Report

But a closer look shows only a slight difference in the driving decline between city and country roads. The former was down 19% nationwide in March, while the latter was off 17%. Moreover, the states at the two extremes—Vermont and Wyoming—both are predominately rural.

COVID-19 Mandate

More likely contributors are local restrictions implemented during the pandemic.

At the onset of the breakout, for example, seven of the first nine states to issue statewide stay-at-home orders in March were solid or likely Democratic, Sivak points out. That doesn’t necessarily make Republicans themselves more likely to drive, it just gives them more opportunity to do so.

Getting Back Behind the Wheel

After bottoming out in early April, miles driven has increased in each of the last five weeks, according to Inrix, which has issued weekly travel reports since mid-March. The last period measured (May 16 to May 22) saw the largest weekly increase during the pandemic.

nationwide vehicle travel

Image: Inrix

By May 22, nationwide travel had returned to 87% of pre-COVID baseline levels. That’s the highest volume since March 14, which Inrix says was the second day of lessening nationwide travel.

Travel in every state increased compared with the prior week. The three largest increases were recorded in Wyoming and the two Dakotas, and four states (Alaska, Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming) have exceed control week travel. Interestingly, all of these are solidly Republican.