COVID-19’s effect on daily travel

This blog post is based on preliminary results from our survey. These results over-represent highly educated and high income individuals, white and Asian respondents, and people who work from home or don’t commute by car. We are currently conducting a survey with a nationally representative sample and will be reporting results here soon. In this series of blog posts, we are highlighting results that are valuable even though they are not collected from a representative sample.

Daily travel refers to the regular trips that we make on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis, such as commuting to work or school, going to the grocery store, visiting nearby friends and family, and going to the park. Because of their frequency, these trips make up a substantial portion of the distance we travel. Understanding daily travel trends lends key insights into COVID-19’s effects on transport systems. Here, we consider six modes of travel (driving, carpooling, ridehail, transit, biking, and walking), and examine how each is changing.

Transit use is WAY down, and not likely to rebound completely

Unsurprisingly, transit has become an unpopular way to get around during the outbreak of a contagious disease. We asked about respondents’ use of different travel modes before COVID-19 and found that 30% of respondents (n=1335) used transit at least a few times per week before the outbreak. However, when asked about their travel behavior during the pandemic, only 3% of respondents (n=1310) had used transit in the past 7 days. Lowered ridership during the pandemic is an acceleration of an already existing trend, as transit use has been decreasing in recent years.

Our survey results suggest, however, that ridership is not likely to rebound even to pre-pandemic levels in a post-COVID world. We asked respondents how much they expected to use different travel modes after the pandemic was over, relative to their pre-pandemic use. 23% of them (n=1308) expected to decrease their transit use, and more than half of these had been frequent transit riders before the pandemic hit.

Biking and walking are trending up

Among our survey respondents, the popularity of biking and walking has remained relatively constant during the pandemic. 20% of respondents (n=1337) used a bicycle for transport at least a few times per week before COVID-19, and a similar percentage reported bicycling at least once in the past 7 days during the pandemic (n=1312). Likewise, around 50% of respondents walked for transport at least weekly both before (n=1340) and during (n=1308) the pandemic.

After the threat of COVID-19 has passed, however, active transport modes are expected to become more popular. After the pandemic, 26% and 27% of respondents expected to bike and walk more, respectively. Among respondents who reported that they expect decreases in motorized travel (n=546), the trend is even more pronounced; 57% expected to increase their walking, biking, or both.

Stacked bar graph showing respondents's expectations for how often they will use different modes after the pandemic. For all modes, the majority expect no change. However, roughly 10% expect a decrease in carpooling while around 20% expect a decrease in driving alone, ride hailing, and transit use. Around 25% expect an increase in biking and walking.
Summary of respondents’ expectations of their future travel behavior patterns.

A decrease in driving?

Driving takes a number of different forms: driving alone, carpooling, and ride hailing (including taxi services). Driving alone was a popular travel mode before the pandemic, with 69% of respondents (n=1343) traveling alone in a car at least a few times per week. Other forms of driving were less popular, with 14% of respondents carpooling and 3% ride hailing at least a few times per week.

In the long run, however, all three types of driving are expected to decrease in popularity, as respondents who anticipated lowered usage far outnumbered those who expected higher usage in a post-COVID world. As noted above, some of the decrease in driving may be replaced with bike and walk trips. Much of the projected decrease in driving likely stems from an expectation of decreased overall mobility, as people work from home and shop online more.

Ride hailing had the highest percentage of respondents predicting decreased usage (20%) and the lowest percentage of respondents predicting increased usage (2%) among the three driving modes. This may be because this mode, like transit, is adversely affected by the fear of contracting COVID-19 through contact with strangers.

Implications of changes in travel mode

Overall, these data indicate a long-term trend towards use of non-motorized rather than motorized travel modes. In many ways, this will be a positive shift with beneficial effects on the environment and public health. However, transit agencies will be negatively impacted, and transport planners will be faced with increased non-motorized travel in environments that may lack necessary infrastructure such as walking paths and bike lanes. More data will help determine whether or not these findings are a temporary effect of pandemic living, or if they are generalizable beyond our sample. If the results remain robust in our future data collection efforts, however, they are important for policymakers to consider in planning for the post-pandemic future.

1 thought on “COVID-19’s effect on daily travel

  1. […] walking and biking are experiencing a revitalization during the pandemic, and many respondents are expecting to increase their active travel after the pandemic […]

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