COVID-19 Effects on Transportation in the U.S.

City landscape showing a supermarket building and 3 people walking wearing masks and keep distance from one another.

How COVID-19 Has Impacted Travel

In early March states across the nation began to issue shelter in place orders and close businesses in response to the quickly spreading COVID-19 pandemic. With the health and safety of humankind being of the utmost importance, people put a halt to their travels and were asked to social distance while out in public for essential reasons.

With most people working from home, no longer making their daily commutes, and searching for new ways to get out of the house while being safe, the impact of these new travel behaviors was observed across various modes of transit. 

Intrigued by these changes, we took a look at the impact COVID-19 had on travel since February 1st through May 12th. Using the average daily trip count from January for each mode as the baseline of our analysis, this is what we saw.

Looking At All Modes of Transportation

A line graph displays the percentage change across all transportation mode trips from February 1st through May 12th.

Observing the changes in travel over time, it can be seen that most modes experienced a dramatic decrease in trip volume, except for run trips. When factoring in the lifestyle aspects and limitations of working from home and limiting travel to essential trips only, it can be inferred that this increase in run trips is due to people’s drive to stay active and get out of the house while maintaining safe social distancing measures.

Flying by Plane

A line graph displays the percentage change in air trips from February 1st through May 12th.

Air trips saw an immediate impact as soon as the pandemic was announced. With businesses requesting their employees to work from home, and leisure travel coming to a halt, air trips were greatly reduced by up to 88% in mid-April. At the beginning of May, air trips saw a slight increase which can be correlated with the reopening of some states businesses. Looking forward, we expect to continue to see a gradual increase in air trips as more states continue to reopen.

Riding Bikes

A line graph displays the percentage change in bike trips from February 1st through May 12th.

With people commuting to school and work by bike, it can be understood why bike trips saw a decrease of up to 35% towards the end of March. After hitting that trough, bike trips began to slowly, but steadily pick back up throughout April. We can infer that the reason for this is people’s desire to get out of the house during shelter in place, and bike rides were a great option as you could maintain a safe distance from others while enjoying some fresh air. With May being National Bike Month, we saw an almost 30% increase in bike trips in the first few days of the month compared to the end of April.

Taking the Bus

A line graph displays the percentage change in bus trips from February 1st through May 12th.

Naturally, bus trips took a big hit in mid-March as public transit became a form of transportation for essential workers only. Bus trips saw an average decrease of up to 74% in early April. When initially observing the bus trips line graph, you can see a pattern of peaks and troughs. These correlate with the weekdays and weekends, aligning with a natural increase and decrease in bus trips due to commuting patterns. Due to the fact that traveling in buses puts people in close proximity to others, we estimate that it will be some time until bus trips return to their normal trip rate.

Driving by Car

A line graph displays the percentage change in car trips from February 1st through May 12th.

Due to shelter in place orders across the nation, we can see most people reduced their car travels. With road trips out of the question, ceasing commutes, and the ability to have food & supplies delivered to our doorsteps, car trips taken were decreased by up to almost 40% in early April. By the end of April and early part of May, the trend started to change as people began going back to work and on adventures to enjoy the warm weather. With more states reopening, we can expect to continue to see a gradual increase in car trips throughout the following months.

Going for a Run

A line graph displays the percentage change in run trips from February 1st through May 12th.

Interestingly, run trips saw a dramatic increase as much as 205% in early April as a result of the pandemic and shelter in place orders. It can be inferred that the reason for this is because of people’s desire to stay in shape and get out for some fresh air. With most gyms across the nation being closed, run trips became a popular alternative for staying active. From the start of shelter in place through today, we continue to observe a higher than average run trip volume over time. We expect this trend to continue even as gyms begin to reopen, as it will take time for people to become comfortable again with being in close proximity with others.

Taking the Train

A line graph displays the percentage change in train trips from February 1st through May 12th.

When observing the changes in train trips over time since the start of the pandemic, a similar story is painted as what was seen with bus trips. Dramatic increases and drops in train trips is a typical trend, as many people use trains as their main mode of transportation when commuting. The fluctuations minimized as did the total number of train trips being taken. In fact, train trips saw up to a 91% decrease in April. Even as states begin to lift shelter in place orders in May, it is likely train trips will not go back to their normal trip rates in the near future.

Going for Walks

A line graph displays the percentage change in walk trips from February 1st through May 12th.

Walking is a natural part of our everyday activities. We walk and move around constantly as we travel between our jobs, social events, and running errands. When shelter in place orders swept across the nation and our daily travel habits changed, walk trips were impacted with an almost 50% decrease in mid-April. From that point, walk trips saw a slight increase throughout the month and entering May. We expect this upward trend to continue as people begin to get back to their normal daily routines.

States are reopening, and it’s being noticed

Map of the United States colored from yellow to orange to red showing the changes in travel between states comparing April to May.

Shelter in place orders in some states began to lift as early as April 27th. When comparing trip volumes from the first 12 days in May with the first 12 days in April, during the peak of the pandemic, it became clear which states were beginning to lift their shelter in place orders earlier than others.

In May, Alaska experienced a 65% increase in trips taken, the highest increase in travel in comparison with all other states. Alaska was also one of the first states to start re-opening and easing restrictions on businesses on April 24th, such as restaurants and personal-care-services. In addition to Alaska, Minnesota, and Mississippi also started lifting their shelter in place restrictions on April 26th and 27th, respectively. Mississippi has seen a 38% increase in overall trip volume in May while Minnesota has increased its total trips by 32%. As more states continue to lift restrictions on travel and reopen businesses, the trends show that trip rates will continue to increase in correlation with these actions.

Moving forward

Although the future of travel is not completely clear, the trends we reviewed across various modes of transportation help provide a better understanding of what could be to come. With states lifting shelter in place orders and reopening businesses in phases, we can expect to continue to see increases across all modes of travel as people move closer to their normal travel routines.