The Long View: COVID-19 Impacts on Human Activity-Travel Patterns

Ram Pendyala
Apr 20 · 15 min read

Part 2: Will We See a Future of Less Traffic and Reduced Physical Participation in Activities — Don’t Count On It

In Part 1 of this two-part series, we explored how and why people may not adopt remote work and school arrangements on a mass scale in a post-COVID-19 era.

Preamble
The pictures that are being shared online and through social media are breathtaking. The fear of the coronavirus coupled with massive lockdowns in city after city and country after country have dramatically reduced the volumes of fossil fuel burning cars on roadways and the number of travelers in planes, trains, and cruises. Pictures of clean air, clear streams and lakes, and barren roadways with light or no traffic are giving some hope that a brighter, cleaner, and more sustainable future may be ahead. Because people have experienced a new and different way of life, one that is characterized by low degrees of physical movement and activity engagement outside the home (which almost always entails physical travel since we haven’t figured out teleportation yet), will we see a significant shift in lifestyles and activity-travel patterns in the future after the virus has been vanquished? Employers, governments, and service providers are investing heavily in infrastructure and policies that allow people to work, study, shop, conduct personal business, meet, execute legal documents, order fresh meals, and socially interact and be entertained without leaving the comfort of their home. In other words, technological systems and organizational processes have transitioned at breakneck speed to enable a whole new lifestyle.

While there is undoubtedly some hope that elements of a more sustainable lifestyle may be embraced in the months and years ahead, much of what is seen today in the midst of the pandemic is not necessarily what people are choosing to do of their own volition. Between the fear of the virus, business-school-workplace closures, a feeling of civic responsibility to do one’s part to slow the spread, and lockdowns of various levels of severity and enforcement, people are confined to their homes. This is not happening because people want to live in such a mode, but because people feel (or are) compelled to do so.

Having said that, an argument can be made that people are learning and adapting to a whole new way of living — one that is characterized by low levels of personal travel, high degree of remote/virtual activity engagement (including working and schooling), and extensive use of online shopping and ordering to enable delivery of goods, services, and food. This experience, and the awareness of a whole new lifestyle that it has engendered, may lead to significant behavioral changes that advance a more sustainable future. While the argument is appealing and only time will tell the extent to which this will hold true, we probably can’t and shouldn’t count on it happening to any significant degree. Here’s why…

A Historical Lesson in Vehicle Miles of Travel
When the great recession of 2008–2009 hit and gas prices rose to a more than $4 per gallon average across the country, travel demand dropped, new car sales plummeted, and long distance travel (whether for business or leisure) took a beating. The highway trust fund (which obtains revenue from the federal fuel taxes) teetered on the edge of insolvency, necessitating Congress to transfer $35 billion from the general fund to the highway trust fund between 2008 and 2010. Did the great recession and the behaviors it created lead to a significantly new normal once the recession was in the rear view mirror? Not really… as the economy recovered and subsequently surged, people got back to work, and gas prices fell to an inflation adjusted normal, travel demand has reached an all-time high. In fact, as seen in Figure 1, prior to the pandemic, vehicle miles of travel (VMT) was at the highest level ever, and even VMT per capita was beginning to reach the previous record levels set in 2005–2006 (just prior to the recession). In other words, neither experiencing a different way of life during the recession nor the explosive growth in the internet of things (IoT) over the past decade has dampened the spirit to travel.

Figure 1. Vehicle Miles Traveled (1995–2018) (Source: FHWA Traffic Volume Trends)

Before COVID-19 got a stranglehold on societies worldwide, Airplanes were packed and airports were seeing record numbers of travelers — both domestic and international. Prognostications that society had reached a saturation point in travel (referred to as “peak travel”) and that millennials would shun the ways of the past and live a car-free low-VMT lifestyle have largely proven to be nothing more than losing wagers. Betting against the desire of people to move, interact, and access opportunities to engage in activities is probably never a winning bet.

Information and communication technologies (ICT) do not necessarily lead to a reduction in travel; while they may substitute for certain types of travel, they also engender an increase in travel by empowering citizens with information about opportunities, destinations, and activities. Professor Patricia Mokhtarian, one of the foremost experts in adoption and impacts of ICT on travel, predicted more than 20 years ago that telecommuting would have hardly any impact on vehicle miles of travel (even if telecommuting were adopted widely). She also showed that the historical trend is clearly one where both ICT use and travel demand have increased in a complementary fashion over time; one has not increased at the expense of the other. Her analyses of and conclusions about ICT-transportation relationships have proven to be spot on.

Life is About Choices and Rhythms in Time
Unless there is a wholesale change in lifestyle, travel demand is unlikely to change in any significant way. And it is more likely than not that people will largely return to their pre-COVID-19 patterns of activity engagement and travel when the virus is gone and lockdowns are lifted. Signs of this are beginning to be seen, with the relaxation of lockdown conditions in Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. While a few continue to remain home out of an abundance of caution, many are crowding the streets and trains — releasing months of pent-up latent demand for travel and physical interaction. Closer to home, opening up of beaches in Florida has been met with crowds flocking to enjoy the sun and surf, with little regard for social distancing and community spread even while most of the country continues to stay in lockdown. Across the country, people are protesting lockdowns and demanding that cities be reopened. And the latest news out of Georgia shows that salons and gyms are abuzz with activity and patrons the moment they re-opened their doors.

One way to view human activities and travel engagement is to consider how people use their time. Time is a finite resource (24 hours per day) and participation in activities and travel consumes this finite resource. Time serves as a constraint, limiting the degrees of freedom of an individual to alter daily activity-travel patterns in any significant way. In fact, if one were to look at what has transpired between 1965 and 2018 (a 53 year period), it is amazing to see how stable time use patterns have remained over this very extended period, except for the very expected changes brought about by shifts in socio-economic characteristics — such as women’s participation in the labor force, which has closed the gender gap to some degree with respect to time spent (per day) to paid and unpaid work. But there have otherwise been only rather modest shifts in time use patterns, despite the many technological advances of the past half-century. There is a noticeable drop in time spent shopping (consistent with the emergence and growth of online shopping), virtually all of which is dedicated to additional sleep time. Table 1 depicts average daily time use (in minutes per day) for males and females 25–59 years of age. The numbers for 1965 through 2012 are obtained from Sayer (2016) while the 2018 numbers are derived from an analysis of the latest American Time Use Survey (ATUS) data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

But what is more relevant in the context of the current situation is to see how time spent in-home has changed relative to time spent out-of-home (for various activities). If there is a clear and discernible trend over time of increased time spent in-home for various activities, then that may be an indication that people are increasingly choosing to pursue activities in-home (at the expense of pursuing activities out-of-home) — and they are presumably able to do so because of information and communication technologies (ICT). In the table that follows (Table 2), daily time allocation to various activities is depicted in minutes per day for workers and non-workers 18–65 years of age for an average weekday and an average weekend day. The values represent total time spent on each activity (average minutes per day), in-home and out-of-home, and are based on a detailed analysis of ATUS data from 2004 to 2018.

Over a 15 year time period, it is seen that time use has hardly registered any significant shift. Despite a terrible recession that left a nation scarred, the explosive growth of the internet of everything and social media platforms, the introduction of and widespread adoption of smartphones and apps, dramatic increase in online shopping and delivery-based services, and the advent of many transportation disruptions including ride-hailing services, time use patterns in the United States have remained very stable over the period depicted in the table. What’s more, there is hardly any evidence of substitution patterns (enabled by ICT). The time spent in-home relative to time spent out-of-home for various activities hasn’t really changed by that much at all. Any reductions in time spent for consumer purchases or leisure are largely dedicated to more minutes of sleep! In other words, despite all of the technology that has become ubiquitous and entered every aspect of life — enabling large scale substitution of out-of-home activities with in-home activities, it doesn’t appear that the population has embraced such substitution to any degree that is worth talking about. So, even in a period of dramatic technological developments, the public has largely shunned substituting in-home activity engagement for out-of-home activity engagement even though they could have easily done so. A caveat worth noting is that the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) does not record multiple activities performed simultaneously (for example, internet surfing/shopping while watching TV). As such, it is entirely possible that some online and secondary in-home activities are under-reported, given that the internet enables a fair amount of multi-tasking not possible previously.

Impact on Travel and Mode Choice
There is plenty of evidence that vehicular traffic has dropped dramatically during the pandemic lockdown. Google is publishing mobility reports showing the percent change in travel in the most recent period relative to a baseline travel demand measured in February. According to a recent Google Mobility Report, these are the numbers for the Greater Phoenix area (Maricopa County) in Arizona, depicting how visits and length of stay at different places have changed over time. According to Google, “the changes are calculated using the same kind of aggregated and anonymized data used to show popular times for places in Google Maps”.

  • Retail and Recreation: -44%
  • Grocery and Pharmacy: -21%
  • Parks: -26%
  • Transit Stations: -50%
  • Workplace: -38%
  • Residential: +11%

So, despite a statewide stay-at-home order, human presence at various establishments has not dropped all that dramatically. Workplaces are down 38%, reflecting the fact that there are many who are essential workers, service workers, or other types of workers who cannot telecommute. There may be others who are still choosing to go into work while taking appropriate safety precautions. While retail and recreational establishments show a rather dramatic decrease (consistent with the fact that they are largely closed), grocery and pharmacy establishments show a decrease of only 21 percent. In the context of a stay-at-home order issued in the wake of a deadly pandemic, this drop isn’t all that substantial. People are still going to stores, in part because grocery stores are the last bastion of the semblance of normalcy for people to feel part of a functioning society. Many stores have had to implement new queuing protocols, limited operating hours, and limits on the number of people in the store at any point in time because the number of people visiting stores is often exceeding numbers that would enable safe social distancing.

The University of Maryland has put together a COVID-19 Impact Analysis Platform that combines data from a number of sources to measure social distancing, daily trip rates, percent staying at home, and daily miles of travel. The data are very revealing. For the Greater Phoenix metropolitan area (Maricopa County) that is under a Stay-at-Home order, daily trip rates hovered around 3 to 3.5 trips per person in January (well before COVID-19 reared its ugly head). Over the last couple of weeks (April 5 to April 20), daily trip rates are in the range of 2.2 to 2.9 trips per person. Daily miles traveled was in the range of 35–40 miles per person in January; the range in the first half of April was about 20–28 miles. Percent of individuals staying home on any given day in January was about 15–20 percent; the corresponding range in April has been about 30–35 percent. None of these statistics constitute indicators of a population that is craving to be homebound. Once we account for the fact that many workplaces and businesses and all schools are closed, it appears that the reduction in travel stemming from a fear of the virus and stay-at-home order is really quite modest.

The large drop in presence at transit stations suggests that vehicular traffic may actually see a post-COVID-19 increase in the short term (although the increase is unlikely to be noticeable). The drop in transit usage is likely occurring during the pandemic for two reasons. First, there is the fear of the contagion, and second, there is a lockdown that eliminates the need for travel for many. When the pandemic is history, the fear of the virus may linger for at least a period of time, keeping transit ridership depressed.

Likewise, ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft may continue to see lower levels of use as (some) people delay coming back to these alternative modes of transportation until they are convinced that the risk of the virus is long gone. Ride-share services such as UberPool and LyftShare have been suspended during the pandemic, rendering any efficiencies from true ride-sharing lost if people are deemed at risk of getting contagious diseases. And the prospect of people embracing true “sharing” of modes appears dimmer going forward; despite decades of efforts to promote ridesharing, the mode share for carpooling remains woefully small, suggesting that people are not intrinsically inclined to share rides with strangers to any substantial degree.

Ride-hailing service drivers, fearing for their own health and bearing the brunt of not having benefits when they need them most, may rethink their continued participation in the gig economy — potentially impacting the business model that has contributed to the growth and popularity of these services. The same can be said of air travel, train travel, and recreational cruises. The fear of crowded spaces, potentially unsanitary public vehicles, and a virus lurking across state or national borders will most likely keep those more risk-averse from undertaking discretionary travel, at least for a while, similar to the period following 9/11. Even micro-mobility services (e.g., e-scooters) haven’t been spared the pain of the pandemic. Similarly, Waymo suspended its automated vehicle passenger service in the Phoenix area during the pandemic, raising questions about the timeline for widespread deployment of automated robotaxi services.

The slope of the travel recovery curve will depend on both public perceptions of risk and level of risk tolerance, not to mention the extent to which the virus remains a threat to public health. But once the virus is defeated and seen as no more perilous than the common flu, people will resume travel to enjoy their favorite activities and connect in-person with family, friends, and colleagues. The adventurous risk-takers will come back first, while those most risk-averse will return last — but eventually, barring a few rare exceptions, return they will.

Planning for the Future

During and immediately after COVID-19, people are more likely to explore recreational destinations closer to home (where they can drive), rediscover the great outdoors (rather than visit restaurants and theaters that re-open, simply because these are places where community spread may occur more easily), and generally play it safe in their activity and mobility choices. In other words, when restrictions are lifted, people are back to work, and businesses re-open, we may actually see less sustainable transportation choices being made in the short term — with people shunning shared transportation modes and favoring the safety of their personal vehicles and single-rider mobility-on-demand (Uber and Lyft) services. A bright spot in all of this is that people increased their bicycling and walking during the pandemic lockdown; such behaviors may continue in the aftermath of the virus, providing a ray of hope for the continued (greater) use of these active and sustainable modes of transportation than in the period prior to COVID-19.

The pandemic is no travel demand management tool, and severe lockdowns are no way to try and advance sustainability goals. In fact, the pandemic may potentially do the opposite. Not only is it motivating people to shun shared and sustainable modes of transportation in favor of the safety and comfort of their own personal vehicles, it is forcing some suppression of travel and activity engagement — although the level of suppression is nowhere near commensurate with the extent of lockdown (stay-at-home) ordered (to stop community spread). Suppressing travel does not and should not equate to travel demand management. Travel demand management should enable travel by alternative sustainable modes of transportation, facilitate out-of-home activity engagement in the pursuit of happiness, and distribute travel across space and time in a way that is efficient and promotes access to opportunities.

The bottom line is that, unless the virus remains unconquered and remains in the headlines as a scary unknown entity for an extended period (with multiple waves of infections and deaths), people will eventually want to go back to their favorite restaurants or the fancy dining establishments that their friends share via social media, see the upcoming James Bond and Top Gun movies, cheer their favorite sports teams and players in person or in crowded parties, and explore exotic destinations in faraway lands. Travel is what makes it possible for people to connect, engage in activities, explore destinations, enjoy hiking and camping in parks, and accumulate a life’s worth of experiences. Travel is a sign of economic and social vitality. Mobility is a sign that people are enjoying all that cities offer, businesses are thriving, and society is functioning. It’s only the adverse effects of vehicular traffic that need to be banished from the earth’s ecosystem. Perhaps there are some lessons learned during the pandemic that can help advance sustainable transportation systems in a post-COVID-19 era.

The long-term effects of COVID-19 on human activities and travel patterns remain uncertain, but if history has taught us anything, it is that the effects are likely to be modest as people settle back into the rhythms of life, kids return to school, American businesses rev up again, and the devastating effects of the virus slowly fade from society’s collective memory. It is perhaps true that what the future holds is laced with a greater degree of uncertainty this time around. The fear of the contagion is palpable and several places are experiencing a second wave of infections; ubiquitous connectivity and amazing gadgets enable activities hitherto difficult to accomplish remotely; people have experienced and learned a new lifestyle; and each new generation seems ready to shed the ways of the past.

Planning for this uncertainty is the imperative of the hour. We should not assume that the (sustainable) behaviors seen under the pandemic will naturally continue on their own in a post-COVID-19 era. Rather, deliberate efforts should be made to incentivize and facilitate a continuation of sustainable behaviors in the long term. Doing so will allow humanity to fully engage in economic activity, be ahead of the curve when the next pandemic strikes, and enjoy all that this planet has to offer without hurting it.

If you’re still wondering if we will see congestion-free roadways in a post-COVID-19 world, the answer may be YES in the short-term, but don’t count on it in the long term in the absence of deliberate actions.

References
Sayer, L. C. (2016). Trends in women’s and men’s time use, 1965–2012: Back to the future? In S. M. McHale, V. King, J. Hook, & A. Booth (Eds.), Gender and couple relationships (pp. 43– 78). New York: Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-21635-5_2

Acknowledgements: The author thanks Irfan Batur and Shivam Sharda, Graduate Research Associates at Arizona State University for their assistance with data analysis, tabulations, and charts.

Disclaimer: The opinions and views expressed in this story are those of the author alone and do not in any way reflect the opinion or position of the author’s past, present, or future employers, research sponsors, or collaborators.

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