How are Californians using Uber during the pandemic?

Rik Williams
Aug 18 · 4 min read

by Rik Williams, Senior Data Scientist, Policy Research, and Shin-pei Tsay, Director of Policy, Cities and Transportation

On March 16, 2020, the San Francisco Bay Area’s six counties issued the country’s first shelter-in-place order in response to the spread of the novel coronavirus. Three days later, the State of California issued its own order, with other jurisdictions across the US following suit in the subsequent days and weeks. Personal travel was brought to a virtual standstill as people stayed home, and many of California’s public transit agencies were forced to curtail service, sometimes drastically.

Nonetheless, people still needed to travel for essential purposes: buying groceries and supplies, medical appointments, caring for others, and — in the case of essential workers who are unable to work from home — commuting to and from their jobs. For the nearly 1 million California households without access to a vehicle (and many others with fewer than one vehicle per adult), these essential trips must be served by other modes like public transit, getting rides from friends and family, walking, biking, taxis, and ridesharing. In an unprecedented lockdown where people only travel when absolutely necessary, how does Uber help meet these essential needs?

Temporal patterns

Across an average week, Uber activity follows a fairly well-established pattern: on Monday through Thursday, trip volumes rise during morning commute hours, dip during midday, rise again for the evening commute, and drop overnight. Friday and Saturday nights are the busiest times in most cities, with riders using Uber to get to and from entertainment and nightlife destinations. This “typical” pattern is illustrated as the grey curve in the figure below, for all California rides during April 2019.

One year later, in April 2020, the whole state was sheltering in place. However, as shown by the black line in the figure, people were still taking Uber trips (note that the grey and black curves are shown on different scales for visibility; in absolute numbers, the black curve would be more than 80% below the grey one). Not surprisingly, the Friday and Saturday night peaks are gone; however, the double commute peaks are also largely absent, replaced by a single, broader peak in the early afternoon. This may indicate people using Uber to obtain essential goods and services during business hours when they would normally be at work.

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Figure 1. Pattern of California Uber trips by time of day and day of week in April 2019 (grey curve) and April 2020 (black line), scaled by the average number of weekly trips from each of those months.

Spatial patterns

Although it’s well known that rideshare trips dropped dramatically during shelter-in-place, this did not happen uniformly. To better understand where the decline was largest (and smallest), we calculated the percent change in trips from April 2019 to April 2020, aggregating by Census tract. While trips were down almost across the board, a striking pattern emerged: they appeared to be down less in low-income areas. Indeed, trips to or from HUD Qualified Census Tracts (QCTs) made up 46% of all California Uber trips in April 2020, compared to 36% a year before.

To better visualize this, let’s look at California’s two largest metro areas. First, the map below shows areas (in dark purple) where Uber usage in the San Francisco Bay Area has been relatively more prevalent during lockdown; many of these neighborhoods overlap with QCTs:

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Figure 2. [Left panel] Changes in Uber pickup volume by Census tract between April 2019 and April 2020. Darker colors show relatively more Uber usage during shelter-in-place. Tracts are plotted only if they averaged at least one Uber pickup per day in April 2019. [Right panel] HUD-designated low-income Census tracts.

In areas like SF’s Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, Oakland, San Leandro, Richmond, and East San Jose, people are still relying on Uber as an option for their essential trips; conversely, in wealthier areas where people are more likely to own cars (or where extensive walking, biking, and transit infrastructure exists), trips are down far more. A similar pattern emerges in Southern California, where the wealthy parts of West L.A. saw the largest reductions in trip volumes, while lower-income communities of color in South L.A., Santa Ana, and the Inland Empire continued to use Uber at higher rates:

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Figure 3. Same as Figure 2, but for the Los Angeles metropolitan area.

This isn’t just a visual coincidence: when we plot the change in Uber trips against median household income for every Census tract in California, an obvious correlation emerges: the wealthiest areas saw a uniformly large decrease in trips, while lower-income areas show a far broader range (and on average are taking more trips than wealthy areas, relative to pre-pandemic levels):

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Figure 4. Ratio of Uber pickup volume in April 2020 vs. April 2019 in California census tracts, plotted against median household income in each tract (income data from the 2014–2018 American Community Survey 5-year Estimates). Only tracts averaging more than 1 pickup per day in April 2019 are plotted.

Conclusion

As this new analysis shows, Uber continues to play a vital role in meeting mobility needs across the state during shelter-in-place. If Uber has to shut down its Rides business in California, riders in the state won’t be able to make some of these essential trips — and this burden would fall disproportionately on communities with low incomes and limited access to other transportation options.

Uber Under the Hood

Insights and updates from the Uber Comms & Policy team

Rik Williams

Written by

Data scientist @Uber Policy Research. Time also spent in US foreign assistance, astronomy, hiking, silicon wafers, fast food, and poorly-played music.

Uber Under the Hood

Insights and updates from the Uber Comms & Policy team

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