Empty freeways, canceled flights: How life in California has changed since the coronavirus outbreak

Freeways are empty at rush hour. Train stations are vacant. Few flights are leaving as planned.

In the last two weeks, California has all but shut down in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Amid social distancing restrictions, mass layoffs and the stay-at-home order that took effect Friday, the number of miles driven by passenger vehicles fell 53% on Monday compared to normal levels, according to the traffic data company Inrix.

In the Bay Area, distances traveled by car, bike, transit and on foot fell by nearly 70% compared with the start of March, according to data collected from smartphones and analyzed by Descartes Labs.

Change in distance traveled (five-day average)

Traveled more than usual Traveled less than usual

March 2-6

March 16-20

Rush-hour traffic has disappeared

Drivers in California this month have encountered an eerie sight: empty freeways.

“Normally, traffic patterns are like a balloon: You squeeze in one place and it inflates in another,” said Trevor Reed, a transportation analyst with Inrix. “Right now, the balloon is just totally deflating.”

More congestion Less congestion

Los Angeles

Jan. 16

March 24

San Francisco

Jan. 14

March 24

Though a headache for commuters, California’s traffic-choked freeways are indicators of a booming economy. Vacant interchanges, by contrast, can be a sign of economic pain.

Last week, as businesses closed and laid off workers, nearly 3.3 million people across the country filed for first-time unemployment claims, five times more than in any single week since record-keeping began in 1967.

Sparked by mass layoffs and work-from-home requirements, average driving speeds in Los Angeles on Wednesday afternoon were 72% faster than normal, Inrix found.

Average speeds on March 23 and 24
Average speeds on weekdays for January and February

Southbound 405 Freeway in Los Angeles and Orange counties

Southbound 5 Freeway in Los Angeles and Orange counties

Westbound 10 Freeway in Los Angeles County

The same is true in the Bay Area, where speeds were 66% faster on Wednesday afternoon.

The Bay Bridge in San Francisco

Southbound Interstate 280 from San Francisco to San Jose

Buses and trains are almost empty

Trips on Los Angeles County’s bus and rail system, the busiest on the West Coast, have fallen more than 70% compared with a usual week. Southern California’s commuter rail system, Metrolink, has lost more than 80% of its ridership.

In Northern California, ridership on the Bay Area Rapid Transit commuter rail network has cratered to about 8% of usual weekday levels.

Flights aren’t leaving at their scheduled times — or at all

Domestic and international flights are scheduled months in advance, and now air carriers are canceling and rescheduling them en masse.

Major airlines say they expect to cut flights by up to 70% in April and May, despite a $2-trillion bailout moving through Congress that includes a $50-billion lifeline in grants and loans for passenger airlines.

The president of American Airlines, which has grounded nearly one-third of its fleet, told employees this week that the company was in “the fight of our lives.”

Flights from Los Angeles International Airport

Flights from San Francisco International Airport

Some L.A. hot spots have emptied out, but MedMen is still busy

Satellite images ©2020 Maxar Technologies

Foot traffic has fallen off a cliff at popular Los Angeles hotspots, including the Santa Monica Pier and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

But some hiking spots, including Griffith Park and Temescal Canyon, have been so packed that officials have shut them down. And long lines have formed at dispensaries like Med Men, which are classified as essential businesses under Los Angeles County’s stay-at-home order.

Typical popularity Actual popularity

Temescal Canyon

MedMen West Hollywood

Dockweiler Beach

Santa Monica Pier


Union Station

Times staff reporter Matt Stiles also contributed to this story.