Traffic rebounds but travel patterns changing as drivers continue returning this summer to Illinois Tollway

The extended July 4th weekend is always busy on the Illinois Tollway as drivers travel to holiday barbecues and Independence Day celebrations, but this year—despite the pandemic—the Tollway system was even busier than expected.

During the lengthy holiday weekend, nearly 9.4 million vehicles traveled on the Tollway system—more than the 9.3 million projected to use the toll roads during that time. The number of vehicles—based on toll transactions--was almost back to the pre-pandemic levels recorded over the July 4th weekend in 2019.

And the increase in travelers over the holiday weekend not only reflects the continuing rebound in traffic as the pandemic eases, it also reflects a shift in traffic patterns as more drivers travel at different times during the day, especially on weekdays.

Commercial traffic remains strong, with toll transactions for trucks up about 8 percent from pre-pandemic levels as consumers and the transportation industry adjust to new economic patterns.

Saturday traffic also is rising, indicating more leisure and recreational travel is occurring this spring and summer as the economy has reopened.

During the holiday weekend, Saturday traffic was unexpectedly high. More than 1.5 million vehicles used the Illinois Tollway on Saturday, July 3, exceeding the projected total of 1.4 million vehicles and making it the second busiest travel day of the extended, six-day holiday weekend. That number exceeded the number of drivers using the Tollway during either weekend day of the July 4th holiday in 2019.

“We’re pleased to see more drivers returning to our roads as the pandemic eases, with many commuting to jobs as our economy expands, while other are getting out and finally taking long-delayed vacations,” said Illinois Tollway Executive Director José Alvarez. “We’re continuing to provide the same high level of safety and convenience to our customers whenever they choose to travel on our system.”

While total passenger vehicle traffic remains lower than it was before the pandemic, weekend traffic volumes are returning to normal levels more rapidly than weekday traffic.

The Tollway is seeing some recent increases in vehicle traffic on Saturdays, where transaction volumes are up between 2 percent and 5 percent, which appears to reflect rising leisure and recreational travel in recent months.

Weekday traffic is spread more evenly throughout the day, with fewer vehicles traveling during peak morning rush hours, apparently because some employees are working more flexible hours, including heading to their jobs later in the day.

Spreading that traffic out over a longer period of time during the midday and afternoon is resulting in less congestion during morning and evening rush hours. That change benefits not just passenger vehicles but also commercial trucks, allowing them to more easily travel with less congestion on the Tollway system during those rush hours.

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