A Year In Review: Travel During The Pandemic

With more than a year since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we now are in a position to look back and reflect. The way we work, how we interact with others, and the impact on how we move remains disrupted. However, with restrictions being lifted, cases falling in the United States, and daily vaccinations increasing, the light at the end of the tunnel is near.

By looking at aggregate location data from the Miles community, we’ve gathered insights into how our users have changed their travel patterns in the past year due to and despite the pandemic.

What we aim to examine in this “Year In Review: Travel During The Pandemic” is how different travel modes trended, travel’s relationship to the virus, and the effect of the pandemic on metropolitan cities.

Mode Transportation Trends

In the weeks following the official pandemic announcement on March 11, 2020, trips taken by Miles users dropped from 3.4 million in the week of February 9 – 16 to 2.1 million over March 22 – 28. That is a 39% decrease in movement! Below are representations of the trip count for car and airplane trips. Most dramatically was the effect on air travel. That travel mode plummeted to 13% of normal, when comparing February to April. The three, weeklong periods with the fewest total trips recorded between March 2020 and March 2021, came in April 2020, when uncertainty and fear were at their highest.

The major suppression of travel did not sustain across the board, despite major virus surges. For instance, Car Trips Per Active User as seen below, went from 4.9 down to 4.17 and back up to 4.8 trips/user in the span of March 31 – July 25. Not nearly as dramatic as the continued effect on air travel, the 12% decrease returned to near pre-pandemic levels by summer.

Travel & The Virus

Did Americans stay put? As demonstrated above, car trips made a rather quick comeback. Interestingly, this resurgence in movement coincided with the second major surge of coronavirus when cases in the US reached 66,000 cases per day, as seen in the New York Times cases chart provided below. Major travel days, like Christmas and New Years, showed that despite high daily case rates, people still took to traveling. Air travel increased 250% during these winter holidays as compared to the 6 month period of air travel restrictions. 

What is telling, and definitely encouraging, is the trend of walk trips. After seeing a drop off following the pandemic announcement, walk trips remained low until the States starting seeing a sharp decline in cases in February. Many people stayed home!

Population Disbursement

For many people, the need to commute to an office vanished overnight. And as the pandemic stretched far past the first 2 weeks of quarantine, so did the need to be tied down to one location. In some cities across the country, there was a telling redistribution of populations. 

Below are population density maps of populous cities in the United States. In San Francisco, for instance, there is a notable difference in the density of Miles users’ home locations from 2020 ’til 2021. Unsurprisingly, the region in the top right corner of the city is the business district.

More instances of major metropolitan areas in the United States showing significant change between January 2020 and January 2021 are depicted in the charts above, including New York City. When examining the greater NYC area, the visual density of Miles users in 2020 was much more pronounced than in 2021. There were even lower densities in the outer-boroughs, indicating that people left the area entirely. The story remains similar across Seattle, Austin, Denver, Miami, and Boston. Los Angeles is a peculiar case where higher densities seem to form in the span of the year!

Conclusion

It is no surprise that the worldwide pandemic drastically effected how people moved about. Modes like walking maintained a stable ‘new normal’ through the pandemic until daily cases dropped and vaccinations increased. Air and car travel saw major drops but the former’s trend stayed low. Major holidays brought out surges, but they quickly subsided to ‘normal’ pandemic travel levels. Most interestingly is that even while people stayed home and took less trips, in many cases people moved to new homes! We all have changed in the wake of this global phenomenon, and too, how we live, travel, and engage with one and other. The question now remains is what will drastically revert and what changes to our lives are here to stay?