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Where did New York City hide from the pandemic?

Intro

New York City (NYC) community changed a lot over the pandemic, sending hundreds of thousands of people away from their urban dwellings, and sparking interest among urban analysts.

Where did people flee and why? What is the hinterland of NYC dwellers?

We took data from GPS aggregators and looked at the relocation patterns of New Yorkers, who have been residing in NYC boroughs but chose to leave their homes until the pandemic is over, or even longer.

Pre-pandemic location patterns compared to the current ones give us very peculiar geography both across NYC urban area and nationwide.

As analysis shows, the volumes of New Yorkers’ conventional relocation flows have increased strongly, but real surprise was their geography that reflected dramatic divide between rich and poor.

Data

Habidatum has a long history of working with mobility data — both from telco and GPS aggregators. Besides the basic features like the number of user signals, we identify origin-destination points for all users.

Origin and destination points are often used for transportation planning. We tested it in many countries, USA inclusive. One of the latest examples are our studies on the night bus network plan for Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), and the analysis of the impact of the expansion of Heathrow (London) airport on passenger and local population mobility patterns.

The US-wide geography of destinations for 2019–2020 New Yorkers’ relocation

In this article, we look at the change of people’s consistent nighttime and daytime activity locations — presumably home and work. We used aggregated anonymized GPS data coming from mobile phones apps, like e-commerce, transportation, weather, sport, quantified self and the like.

Apart from basic signals, our data providers offer such attributes as the home area of a user, updated weekly, and calculated via the most frequent location of the user’s long stays (dwell time) during the night hours.

Methodology

As the home area of a user can be updated weekly, we can understand the change of the home location of all users over time with a high level of granularity. So we looked at the home locations of all available users at the start and at the end of the chosen time intervals. The intervals are shown below:

  • December 2019 — May 2020 (~pandemic period)
  • December 2020 — May 2021 (~post-first-lockdown)

We took all users identified as residents of NYC counties / boroughs in either one of the periods mentioned above. Then we explored where they lived at the start and the end of each interval and looked if they had relocated (changed home area) or not. Those who relocated, were grouped by origin and destination county, (see tables and maps below).

All data is finally aggregated on a county level to make it meaningful. It can also be seen by more granular locations such as streets and blocks, or small grid cells with a side of 50 meters or lower, being in this case still anonymized, aggregated and fully compliant with the regulations and rules on private and sensible data.

So, where did New Yorkers go?

2019–2020 Relocations

On a regional scale, besides the Tri-State area, New Yorkers chose for relocation Berkshire in Massachusetts, Monroe and Pike counties in Pennsylvania — one of the most remote posts of NYC commute and traditional second home destinations.

Among the relocation anchors nationwide are warm resort areas such as Palm Beach, Miami-Dade, Broward county (Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale) in Florida (all in Miami region) as well as Los Angeles and San Diego in California.

Also, the destination points include Fairfax in Virginia (suburb of Washington DC), Maricopa in Arizona (Phoenix), Harris county in Texas (Houston) and some other places throughout the country. All are homes for the best universities, highly rated public schools and prominent businesses. This geography can also suggest a previous job, education, or even place of birth for some New Yorkers.

Here’s what the top-40 destinations for 2019–2020 relocation look like:

Top-40 destinations

As we can see, most NYC residents did not go too far. Zooming in closer, we can see particular places outside of NYC that people chose to escape either from virus, or from high rents.

Origins and destinations in Greater New York area

Top ones: Suffolk, Nassau, Westchester, Fairfield (CT), Bergen (NJ). The red and thick line on the map reflects the biggest share of relocated NYC residents. It goes from Manhattan to Suffolk.

Here we can see the percentages of all people identified as relocated during this period:

New York City relocation balance in 2019–2020

It looks like quite a bit of rich Manhattaners just packed the bags and went to their county estates in Suffolk — somewhat reinforcing the point many of us have heard: when the pandemic hit, the wealthy New Yorkers were the first to flee to their «hamptons».

Not only Manhattaners went to suburbia: from the top-10 origin-destination pairs, Suffolk was a choice of almost 8 percent of people that left all New York boroughs from December 2019 to May 2020.

Those suffering from business closures and job losses have likely escaped into the less expensive areas of the Big Apple, looking for an affordable rent in the first place. For example, many residents of Queens went to the Nassau county. Nassau movers constitute almost 6% of the total relocation flow from NYC.

If we look at the relocation equilibrium ratio, which is calculated as a number of inbound relocations to NYC divided by number of outbound relocations, we can see that from December 2019 to May 2020 more people relocated from New York City than into it, this can be observed on the map below:

New York City relocation balance 2019–2020

Only in Staten Island, probably due to its suburban environment, a fragile equilibrium takes place: the number of inbound relocations constitutes 90% of the outbound ones.

Manhattan had the most noticeable losses: inbound relocations number was at 33% of the outbound one. Queens, Bronx and Brooklyn are somewhat in the middle, but closer to Manhattan by type than to the outskirts.

2020–2021 Relocations

On a nationwide scale, most of the relocations in 2021 are the same as in the previous period: Florida, Arizona, California.

Florida did really become a more popular destination for NYC dwellers, and 2 counties in Florida went into the top 5 destinations: Miami-Dade at the 4th, Broward at the 5th place, also Palm Beach at the 7th place of top-10 destinations.

In the list of the most popular regional destinations, we also see 7 counties in New Jersey: Bergen, Hudson, Middlesex, Monmouth, Essex, Ocean, Union, plus Philadelphia that takes the lead, and only one destination in Connecticut — Fairfield.

Counties in Arizona, Texas and Virginia, mostly the same as in the previous period, were also among the most popular destinations.

Here’s what the top-40 destinations for 2019–2020 vs 2020–2021 relocation look like:

Top-40 destinations

There was a bit of a change in the local relocations, though. Around NYC, the top relocation hotspot was Nassau, and Suffolk was second in 2020–2021, so those two switched places from the previous period.

Origins and destinations in Greater New York area, 2019–2020 vs 2020–2021

The red and thick line represents the biggest share of relocated people, and in 2020–2021 it is from Queens to Nassau.

New York City relocation balance 2020–2021

Relocation equilibrium during 2020–2021 looks quite different from 2019–2020: more people relocated to New York City than fled from it, Staten Island lost comparably more people, Brooklyn gained some more people, but still, the balance is negative. Queens and Bronx look almost the same as in 2019–2020 by relocation balance.

New York City relocation balance 2020–2021

What does all of this tell us?

Despite the stereotype that «all New Yorkers move to Florida», we saw NYC residents chose many other places, most of them in the NYC metro / Tri-State area.

Geography is very telling here: the second house in the woods for the rich and the new cheaper apartment in the suburbs for the poor explain the pattern.

Indeed, it’s always easier to stay in a less densely place closer to the city, going to the city from time to time, if you’re in Suffolk, not in Florida. And it is cheaper to live in Nassau than in Brooklyn when the job crisis reaches you.

As hybrid and remote work becomes less of a temporal solution, proximity to New York gains new meaning.

Being close to NYC over pandemic is as important as staying in NYC during pre-COVID times.

New York City provides a huge value no matter what, it is still a major global labor market even if one participates in it from the distance, or only two days a week instead of seven.

And speaking about two days in the city: why do not spend the rest of the week on the other coast, or even abroad?

New York’s influence widens dramatically due to the “work from anywhere” culture. “A piece of New York” is now available globally. No more tears leaving home town for the Big Apple, one can enjoy both, just a little bit of work on the calendar might be required.

Terms

Data: GPS mobile phone data

Relocation: users get qualified as relocated if their home locations at the beginning of the observed time period are different from their home locations at the end of the period.

Home location: location where user lives (down to block group level), defined by a ratio calculated on the following four variables:

  • Number of days user spent in that location in the last month
  • Daily average number of hours spent in that location
  • Time of the day spent in the location (mostly nighttime)
  • User records have been present in the dataset for at least 15 days prior to the observation point

By New York City or NYC in this text we mean 5 counties = 5 boroughs of the city.

Authors: Daniel Gorokhov, spatial data scientist at Habidatum, Katya Letunovsky, VP at Habidatum

We are thankful to Statebook International and Calandra Cruickshank for the inspiration of this study with our joint works on relocation and socio-economic activity patterns during the pandemic in the regions close to New York.

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Habidatum provides near-to-real-time metrics and analytics unlocking real estate properties’ risk and potential based on the location. We convert location big data into commercial risk and potential scoring for all major segments of real estate.

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Katya Letunovsky

Katya Letunovsky

Co-founder and VP at Habidatum. Leading company’s operations. Trained as a geographer and urban planner. Passionate about human and economic geography

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