Transportation and the Economy
The relationship between mobility and the economy is complicated. When physical presence is required to deliver goods and services, mobility is a necessity for the economy to work. Therefore, disrupted travel patterns — like those noted in the wake of the COVID19 pandemic – can impact local and statewide economies. Tracking travel data during such uncertain times both shows how people responded in past weeks to the pandemic and how the state’s economy may be recovering.
Travel to Destinations in Georgia
How people travel has changed dramatically during the pandemic. Stay-at-home requirements, closed or online-only businesses, and statewide admonitions to maintain social distancing protocols mean that people are traveling less in general. Certainly, general mobility has changed significantly since early March when public health measures to protect people began to take effect nationwide. Travel behavior (i.e., where people choose to go, when, and how often) has also changed. Across the U.S., local leadership encourages consumers to limit their trips to destinations as much as possible to help slow the spread of the virus. This includes trips to the most fundamental destinations, like grocery stores and work.
Early responses to the pandemic’s threat to public health varied by state; Georgia declared a state of emergency on March 14th. Stay-at-home orders for the state were put in place on April 3rd, and restaurants, gyms, and other indoor gathering spaces were required to close as well. After several weeks of closure, these restrictions were lifted in late April and early May (depending on use-type), after which many businesses began to reopen with precautionary measures in place. Tracking variations in travel patterns as they correspond to rapidly changing public safety restrictions provides an indicator of consumer behavior and confidence visiting different kinds of destinations.
Community Mobility Reports
With the intent of aiding local decision-makers, Google has begun releasing regular Community Mobility Reports. These reports document two relevant metrics: (1) changes in visits to key destinations, including grocery stores/pharmacies, parks, work, and more, and (2) changes in the number of hours spent at home. Both of these metrics are calculated based on a reference to baseline days, where a baseline day represents an expected value for that day of the week under normal circumstances. The baseline day is the median value from a 5‑week period (January 3 – February 6, 2020). For ease of trend analysis, these percent changes have been converted to trailing 7-day averages, shown in the charts below.
The “Grocery/Pharmacy” trips are included together, as they are considered to be the most essential trips. The “Retail/Recreation” variable includes destinations like museums, theme parks, restaurants, libraries, and movie theaters. It is important to note that the “Parks” variable contains visits to formally established parks, like dog parks, public beaches, public gardens, etc., but it does not include visits to general outdoor spaces in more rural areas. The “Transit” variable measures visits to transit stations, and the “Work” variable includes formally established places of business.
Beginning in early March, visits to retail/recreation destinations and work decreased rapidly. For these destinations, decreases in visits stabilized in mid-April, and they have slowly increased between mid-April and early July. Visits to grocery stores/pharmacies increased beyond the baseline measurement around March 8th, peaking around March 15th. These trips decreased sharply after that, falling to 15% fewer visits than the baseline in early April. Since early May, however, visits to grocery stores returned to “normal” as compared to baseline dates.
Visits to transit stations in Georgia have decreased more drastically than any other variable measured here. On April 10th, there were over 50% fewer visits than the baseline measurement. Visits to transit stations have slowly decreased since then, plateauing at around -37% of visits from the baseline.
Unlike the other variables here, visits to parks have generally increased over time. As other visit types began to see sharp decreases, visits to parks peaked; on March 9th, there were 44% more trips to parks than usual. Beginning in late March, that increase in visits dropped off. From March 30th to April 23rd, there were fewer trips to parks than the baseline. In early May, however, visits to parks began to rise again, and that increase in trips over the baseline has continued to grow. A second significant increase in park visits occurred in mid-March, with peak percent changes of visits to parks skyrocketing to +114%.
Fulton and DeKalb Counties — two counties making up significant parts of Atlanta — have also seen notable increases in visits to parks. Visits to parks in DeKalb County are comparable to state averages. Fulton County park visits, however, were slower to return to normal rates than other counties and the state averages. This could be for a couple of reasons. First, likely people in Fulton County may have taken longer to develop the confidence to go to places that they think may be crowded. It is also possible that people in Fulton County generally live in more urban places where they may have easier access to sidewalks networks, allowing them to get time outdoors without explicitly visiting parks. Parks in Fulton County, though, are still vital infrastructure; as time has gone on, visits to parks are increasing. From mid-March trips to parks grown significantly to surpass visits under normal circumstances.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also increased the amount of time that people spend at home. Beginning on March 9th, people began spending much more time at home. The rate of change of time spent at home was the highest between March 9th and March 24th. Time spent at home peaked over the baseline on April 7th, and since then, the increase over the baseline has begun to shrink, although people are still spending more 10% more time at home as compared to pre-pandemic measurements.