Mobility has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. With social distancing and people working from home, travel has decreased significantly. However, as the economy has started to reopen, single-occupant car travel and bicycling have increased, while the use of public transit, ride-hailing, carpools, and shared e-scooters remains low.
At the 3 Revolutions Future Mobility Program of UC Davis, we are investigating the temporary and longer-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on transportation. Our current research project features online surveys and phone interviews focusing on how people are adjusting to the pandemic in terms of household size and organization, work activities, and transportation use. So far, we have data from more than 11,000 survey respondents in the US and Canada. Many of them participated in our previous mobility surveys, so we can compare their responses to see how the pandemic has changed people’s activity organization and travel choices. Findings from the study help us understand how the pandemic is disrupting transportation (and society) and inform policies to minimize the negative effects and promote more desirable equity and environmental impacts.
As would be expected by the nature of work that can be done remotely, higher-income workers are more likely to have started telecommuting during this time. Prior to the pandemic, only 8% of respondents telecommuted every day of the week, independent of income level. During the pandemic this share grew to 50% for the high-income group but to only 20% of the low-income group. These numbers add up to the already unequal impacts on employment, as low-income workers more often report that they have lost their jobs or have been furloughed without pay during the pandemic. The differences are even starker if we compare occupations. The adoption of telecommuting has increased by nearly four times for white-collar workers but has remained unchanged for blue-collar workers. Lower-income workers are also more concerned about the economic impact of the pandemic than about its health impact, an additional indicator of the difficult challenges facing low-income workers.
Comparing responses from 2019 versus 2020 shows a drop in the use of all modes of transportation. But 35% of those who are using less transit have also increased their driving. This is not surprising considering concerns about shared modes of travel; solo and family car travel is more compatible with social distancing. More concerning is that, this year, respondents are far less interested in adopting a lifestyle with limited car use or increased use of multiple transportation modes. In 2020, fewer respondents reported interest in forgoing car ownership, even if they had access to viable alternatives or could use or rent a car when they needed it. They were also less inclined to rely on Mobility as a Service (MaaS)—bundle subscriptions that provide access to transit, bikesharing, shared e-scooters, etc. When asked what they expected to do in the fall of 2020, about 60% of respondents agreed that they would drive their own vehicle more because it makes them feel safer from disease transmission, further signaling an increased reliance on private cars for the foreseeable future.
The apparent impacts of COVID-19 on ridehailing, as provided by Uber and Lyft, again point to underlying inequities. Ridehailing was particularly popular among higher-income groups prior to the pandemic, but those respondents have significantly decreased their use of the service, which is in line with their ability to telecommute and their reduced social travel. On the other hand, ridehailing has remained more common among lower-income groups, who are less likely to work from home, often have limited access to a private vehicle, and are using transit services less frequently.
Both before and after the onset of the pandemic, a significant number of our respondents (40%) said they never take leisurely walks, yet the number who walk every day increased from 10% prior to the pandemic to 16% during the pandemic. In addition, the study suggests that those who seldom walk are increasing their activity levels. This is one silver lining in an otherwise troubling time, and we should take advantage of the momentum gained during the pandemic to solidify these healthy habits in the community. Our colleague at UC Davis, Susan Handy has also written about the increase in bicycling during this period.
The current increase in car use and decrease in the use of alternative, shared modes of transportation raise important policy questions about how to manage future transportation needs while addressing the equity and environmental side effects of the pandemic. Working from home and social distancing have decreased overall travel, but transportation needs remain, especially among those with lower incomes. As transit fare revenues continue to decline, the challenge of funding public transportation will only become more difficult. Further, the increased reliance on cars makes the shift to low- or zero-emission vehicles even more important (assuming the primary energy mix for electricity production is clean, as is the case in California). In addition, now is a time for cities and agencies to promote solutions and provide incentives that can further increase walking and bicycling, for leisure or for transportation. Potential actions include judicious expansion of open streets, as discussed in our previous blog. The highlighted equity issues should also compel policymakers to develop programs to assist the most vulnerable—to ensure that they are not further affected in this time of disruption—and mitigate existing inequities. In the transportation sector, this means providing access to as many safe transportation options as possible, including for those that do not own a vehicle, and ensuring that nobody is left behind.
The COVID-19 data described above was collected between April and July 2020. Previous mobility surveys were conducted in 2018 and 2019. Additional rounds of data collection for this project are planned for Fall 2020 and Spring 2021. More information is available at postcovid19mobility.ucdavis.edu and in the recorded webinar from July 15, 2020.
Giovanni Circella is the Director of the 3 Revolutions Future Mobility Program at ITS-Davis and the UC Davis Honda Distinguished Scholar for New Mobility Studies.
Rosa Dominguez-Faus is the Program Manager for the 3 Revolutions Future Mobility Program at ITS-Davis.