Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
In Idaho Falls, traffic is light and the Great American Eclipse crowds are giddy.
IDAHO FALLS, ID—“The worst traffic jam in U.S. history.”
That was how the Washington Post predicted the state of roadways in the Path of Totality on Eclipse Day 2017. But as of Sunday night and Monday morning, some of the busiest hubs were feeling the opposite.
Traffic in downtown Salem, Oregon—which had braced for “hundreds of thousands of visitors”—traffic was flowing freely, the Statesman Journal reported early Monday morning. “It was lighter traffic than ever before," one visitor from Seattle told the Oregonian. The signs on the road — ‘look out for eclipse traffic,’ — must have “scared everyone away.”
Likewise on roads outside of Charleston, SC. State DOT data showed “no reported disruptions or delays to eastbound traffic” as of 7 a.m. Monday, according to the Post Courier.
Idaho roads told the same story. State and local transportation officials had forecasted a near car-margeddon ahead of the spectacle. “The rumor is 10 hours, Boise to Weiser,” a clerk at Boise's City Hall told the Spokesman Review on Friday, describing a 74-mile drive that would normally take no more than 90 minutes. “That’s just the rumor.”
At 6 a.m. Monday, the roads surrounding south-central Idaho's eclipse zone were flowing smoothly. Routes leading into hubs like Boise, Idaho Falls, and Stanley registered traffic increases as much as 30 to 60 percent above average, but they were still moving, largely clear of the gridlock and back-ups that traffic engineers had fretted over.
In Idaho Falls, the bucolic town of 60,000 smack in the POT bracing for upwards of 500,000 visitors, cars sailed at leisurely speeds alongside the city’s greenbelt, where clutches of folding chairs staked out prime eclipse-viewing spots early this morning. By 8:30, most folks still had plenty of breathing room.
Standing in line at the Rodeway Inn's breakfast buffet, one woman traveling from Germany with two adolescent children had left Ogden, Utah at 5 a.m., prepared for a four hour drive. It only took the usual two-and-a-half. “It wasn’t nearly as bad as we expected,” she said.
What gives? As with so many much-hyped mega-disruptions (like LA’s 1984 Olympics, or its recent “Carmaggedon”), regular commuters might just stay home when they hear there’s a major risk of delay.
I sent out a flurry of emails to traffic experts on why reports of traffic doom may have been greatly exaggerated. Here’s what Dwight Hennessy, an expert in driving psychology at Buffalo State University, had to say:
Predicting traffic flow in such a large area really is a difficult thing. I’m sure there will be areas where the traffic volume is high like they expect. Given how long the eclipse process will last nationally, some will see this happen during more peak traffic times but others won’t (which would undoubtedly impact the base traffic flow/rate). I think it’s a smart idea to plan (or even overplan) for it, though. Trying to prepare drivers really was necessary. Even if we don’t end up with massive “congestion” issues, there are still important safety implications, because the distraction potential is still there. Taking preparatory steps is sometimes a Catch 22—if they didn’t do this and there were massive traffic issues, people would be upset that you weren’t prepared. But if they do take steps and nothing bad comes to pass …. people are upset that they wasted everyone’s time!
Yanyan Xu of MIT adds that parallels to the Los Angeles Olympics or Carmageddon aren’t very useful when trying to predict eclipse-related traffic tie-ups:
“I think this mega-event is totally different.… For the Olympic Games, the government made great efforts to avoid the traffic jams during the events, such as the extension of public transportation. Combining with people’s anxiety to traffic jams, the actual traffic during events might be smooth. For the Carmaggedon, the affected population was quite small compared with this eclipse. People could choose their plan B to avoid the anticipated traffic jam. So, I think the abnormal traffic jam might be true, but it’s impact is not so alarmist as it will not last long.”
Conditions aren't perfect everywhere, however. Traffic is slow through some the most populous sections of the Totality. I-85 is seeing heavy traffic heading south from Charlotte and north from Atlanta, as folks make there way to the Greenville area.
I-65 is jammed between Louisville and Nashville—the largest city in the POT. On Twitter, morning commuters reported slightly heavier traffic than normal in eclipse-adjacent metros.
We’ll be updating this post throughout the day.