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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Pandemic stats: More traffic and fewer trail users as transit use also changed, though not always as expected

Traffic on I-90, seen here at the interchange with U.S. 195, is greatly reduced during the COVID-19 shutdown period. Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW  (JESSE TINSLEY)
Traffic on I-90, seen here at the interchange with U.S. 195, is greatly reduced during the COVID-19 shutdown period. Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (JESSE TINSLEY)

Spokane International Airport was flying high in February.

A record number of passengers had passed through its terminals for the third-consecutive year, and the airport was on the trajectory to keep climbing, with nearly 300,000 passengers using the airport in February, a more than 8% increase from the same month in 2019.

But that all changed in March, when the World Health Organization declared the accelerating spread of COVID-19 a pandemic and Gov. Jay Inslee imposed his first coronavirus-related restrictions, banning large gatherings in three West Side counties.

Passenger traffic immediately plummeted as people feared the enclosed space of an airplane and followed directives to stay home in order to stay safe.

In March, traffic was down 47% from the same month the year before.

Then things got a lot worse: In April, just 23,000 people flew in and out of Spokane, a 92% decline year over year.

As airlines have added protocols designed to increase passenger safety, people are gradually returning to Spokane International. As of September, the most recent month with available data, traffic was back up to almost 160,000 passengers. That’s about seven times as many as flew in Spokane in April, but it’s less than half as many as flew during September 2019.

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On one hand, that makes sense: Who wants to be trapped in a tube with a bunch of strangers in the middle of a global pandemic? On the other hand, research indicates the risk of transmitting COVID-19 on an airplane is actually low due to the cabin airflow systems.

According to research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in October, the risk of contracting this year’s coronavirus “during air travel is lower than from an office building, classroom, supermarket, or commuter train.”

While it’s not clear how many potential passengers read the medical literature before booking a flight, the drop in airline passengers despite the relative safety of air travel points to a broader trend in Spokane’s transit data since the pandemic began: It’s hard to make sense of.

Consider traffic.

Despite the fact that schools, offices, restaurants, bars, concerts, sporting events and basically everywhere else anyone would want or need to be have been completely, partially or intermittently shuttered, there has been more traffic on Spokane-area roads for much of the pandemic, according to Washington State Department of Transportation data.

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It’s not that there haven’t been definite dips in the number of cars on area roads.

On March 29, traffic was down 53% from the equivalent day in 2019.

In general, traffic has been below last year’s level since the governor reinstated and strengthened a number of pandemic-related restrictions in mid-November.

On Thanksgiving Day, WSDOT measured 20% less traffic than in 2019, suggesting Inslee’s pleas for people to celebrate the holiday at home didn’t go entirely unheeded.

But for a long stretch between May and November, on most days more cars and trucks were plying Spokane roads than they did before COVID-19 existed.

In previous reporting, WSDOT officials noted that while the number of cars on area roads largely returned to normal, they did so in a very different pattern: Instead of two peak commuting periods in the morning and evening, traffic has been more evenly distributed, reducing congestion.

The transportation department also explained that the increase in traffic relative to 2019 was actually a decrease relative to what 2020 numbers were expected to look like as a result of population growth in Spokane.

And there’s another possible reason more people are driving: because fewer are riding the bus.

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As of last month, ridership for the year was down 37% compared to 2019 on the Spokane Transit Authority system, according to agency documents. But when you discount the first two prepandemic months of the year, the picture is even more dire.

Ridership has been off as much as 78% on the worst days of the pandemic. Overall, the declines have hovered around 50%.

Though common sense suggests people are avoiding the stranger-filled container of a bus, “sophisticated contact-tracing efforts in countries like France, Austria and Japan have failed to link any COVID-19 clusters to public transit,” according to MIT Medical.

Researchers attribute this surprising conclusion to two main factors: the relatively brief amount of time people spend on public transit, and the fact that people usually keep to themselves on city buses and trains, reducing the odds they’ll spread the virus via droplets expelled when talking.

And despite the fall in ridership and fare revenue, STA has been investing since the pandemic started to reduce the odds of transmission even further, by upping cleaning schedules, adding plexiglass barriers for drivers and requiring masks, among other measures.

With fewer people flying out of town, going to school, going to work or riding the bus, it would seem likely more people would be outside, walking and riding bikes.

But they’re not – at least not on the Centennial Trail in Kendall Yards. Some 253,000 people were counted using the trail last year, and that figure has dropped by about 17,000 in 2020.

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That may be more indicative of how many fewer people are downtown in general, to go to work and to attend big events like Hoopfest and Bloomsday, and less indicative of the total number of people getting outside during the pandemic.

A counter along the trail at Mission Avenue in mid-November has found a 27% increase in use compared to a comparable four-week period last year, with an additional 1,000 trips.

The bottom line is that patterns for getting around have radically changed since the pandemic began, grounding potential travelers, putting a halt to countless school buses and carpools, and keeping thousands of office workers at their dining room tables instead of in a line of cars on a congested Interstate 90.

At last, however, with vaccines coming, we can begin to look forward.

But questions remain around when and whether everything will return to normal.

Consider, for example, passenger rail.

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The Empire Builder has been stopping in Spokane every day since 1997. That changed in October, when Amtrak switched all of its long-distance service to a three-day-a-week schedule.

Amtrak attributed the cuts to a dramatic drop in use. On the Empire Builder, the decline has been 40% year-over-year. And when you factor in the prepandemic period of 2020, fewer than half as many people have been riding the Empire Builder since the pandemic began, according to WSDOT’s Janet Matkin.

With less than half as many trains now running, that decline could persist after COVID-19 is under control. Unless, of course, Amtrak gets an infusion of funding and decides to invest back in routes like the Empire Builder.

But it’s not clear whether that will happen.

While the most recent pandemic relief bill provided $1 billion to stabilize Amtrak, CEO Bill Flynn has signaled that much more will be needed early next year to restore the cuts that slashed service in Spokane and much of the rest of the country.

Though we could be on track to get back to normal, it’s more likely that we will move to a new normal, one we see from a new vantage.

After all, a traffic jam or a line of cars in a school drop-off lane doesn’t look as daunting when you’ve spent a year largely anchored to your home, eager to get back to life.

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