Friday, June 2, 2023

Welcome back to the 80s? Traffic in Wilmington down 35% since stay-at-home order

Feeling fewer vehicles on the roadway? Traffic is down in Wilmington by about 35% compared to pre-coronavirus roadway conditions. (Port City Daily photo/File)
Feeling fewer vehicles on the roadway? Traffic is down in Wilmington by about 35% compared to pre-coronavirus roadway conditions. (Port City Daily photo/File)

WILMINGTON — Less than two weeks into the Wilmington area’s stay-at-home order, traffic is down by about 35%.

Fewer vehicles on the roadways mean less overall congestion in Wilmington (a city that’s nearly tripled in population over a 40-year period). For many long-timers, driving on the roads today during the coronavirus outbreak may feel like a flashback to the 80s.

Related: From Surf City to the South Carolina border, most public beach access now closed [Free read]

And if trends in comparable metropolitan areas in the state that restricted movement earlier hold, volume may continue to dip.

As seen in images across the nation, urban areas hit hard by the coronavirus have nearly completely empty streets with virtually no traffic. Though the greater Wilmington area does have instances of community transmission of the novel coronavirus (as of Saturday, New Hanover County has 55, Brunswick County has 33, and Pender County has 5), the state has the 11th lowest cases-per-capita rate in the nation.

Less roadway congestion

Wilmington Traffic Engineer Don Bennett is working closely with the North Carolina Department of Transportation to track traffic differences in the area.

Though the City does not have historical data to pinpoint a time when traffic was the same as it is now, Bennett said casually speaking, it feels like the 80s. “Anecdotally, in speaking with some long time residents, their observation has been that traffic now is consistent with the mid-1980s from an overall congestion standpoint,” Bennett said Thursday. 

Much has changed in the roadway network since then, Bennett said. Traffic volume itself is likely higher now than it was in the mid-80s, but “the perceived level of congestion is about the same,” he said.

Using a point on Market Street near Middle Sound Loop Road as a sample (picked for its high-volume and regular congestion), volume in town was down 11% even before the stay-at-home order went into effect. This was measured on March 17 (North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper closed dine-in restaurants and bars that day and had announced school closures days earlier on March 14).

The next week, on March 26, traffic dipped another 17% from the week prior, down 28% compared to the same baseline volumes mid-February. The statewide, New Hanover County, and City stay-at-home orders went into effect March 30. Days later, on April 2, traffic volumes steeped to 35% lower than volume measured the month prior.

15,000 fewer trips

At this particular sample point, that means 15,000 fewer trips a day. Annual average daily traffic at this section of Market Street is 51,000 trips, according to the most recent NCDOT data available, with 43,912 trips recorded on Feb. 18, a normally lighter traffic month.

The trends downward are comparable with other metropolitan areas — all which enacted travel restrictions earlier than the Wilmington region. Wake County, Mecklenburg County, and Cabarrus County all passed stay-at-home orders on March 26. Traffic in Concord (located in Cabarrus County), Charlotte (Mecklenburg County), and Cary (Wake County) reduced significantly between March 16 and March 22, dipping 20%, 19%, and 34%, respectively, while Wilmington registered a softer 11% drop. Traffic in Cary has seen the most significant decline out of the metropolitan area’s the state and Bennett are tracking, down more than half of the town’s normal volume the month prior as of Sunday.

Just Greensboro has maintained more traffic volume than Wilmington compared to each area’s previous normal volume, though Guilford County passed a stay-at-home order March 27, three days earlier than New Hanover County and the City of Wilmington’s restrictions.

View the analysis below, provided courtesy of the City of Wilmington:

Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at

Related Articles