How has travel changed? This data can help us see

  • Author: William Reckley
  • Date: July 22, 2020

Daily life has been transformed this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, but have our travel patterns changed? A tool from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics may provide some answers.

Map of US States by percent of population staying at home.


Daily trips across the country have taken a new form and may continue to be impacted for some time. Commutes and other regular travel may be happening for some, however people may be going into work less often, on off-peak schedules, or still even, not at all. Trips to parks and playgrounds at lunchtime may be more common and visits to the grocery store or other errands may happen less frequently. Or maybe, it can even feel like nothing has changed at all. This new reality has tremendous implications for the network of mobility options we use to get around, and thus on our daily lives.

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) has released a series of new tools that display some key measures of the trips happening in communities across the nation. Using anonymized cell-phone data from the Maryland Transportation Institute and Center for Advanced Transportation Technology Laboratory at the University of Maryland, we can see daily travel estimates at the national, state, and county levels. In some cases, the data set goes back to January of 2019 making it easy to compare to pre-pandemic travel patterns. The data is updated every Monday and only lags by a week, meaning this information is relevant to the issues we are facing now.

Several preset data views illustrate how trips have changed over time. In this instance, a trip is defined as “movements that include a stay of longer than 10 minutes at an anonymized location away from home. A movement with multiple stays of longer than 10 minutes before returning home is counted as multiple trips.” It is important to note, for example, that a trip running errands to multiple stores would be counted as multiple trips. This makes it even more crucial to look at the data from multiple angles to get the full picture.

The Mobility Over Time view allows you to see all of the data for 2020 in one graph, illustrating the changes in mobility patterns that took place across the country in March. Changing the metric shows either the number of people staying at home, or the people who stopped taking trips, as well as trips classified by their lengths. You can see all of this in daily, weekly, and monthly graphs, as well.

Another important view is the Distribution of Trips by Distance  People may be taking the same number of trips, but those trips may be to new places closer or further from home. As we know, a trip to the grocery store a mile away is a much different trip than your old commute to the office downtown This data coupled with the Mobility Over Time data can show you not only the number of trips people are taking but also how far they are going.

Graph depicting the downturn of trips at the national level from January 2019 to July 2020
Source: U.S. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Trips by Distance


No one dataset will hold the answers to how our transportation system has changed this year, or what to do about it. But it does give us a good foundation for understanding the new reality we are finding ourselves in. As trips return to the previous frequency, we have the opportunity to create a better system for our communities.


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