Transportation and the Economy
The relationship between mobility and the economy is a complicated relationship. 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.
Mobility in Georgia during COVID-19
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. Descartes Labs, a geospatial analytics firm, has released publicly available data to help highlight and measure mobility in the United States. This data can be used to measure changes in the amount of travel in the state and within each county in Georgia.
What is mobility data?
The type of data used here tracks relative movement based on geolocation reports from a sample of smartphones and other mobile devices. Relative movement – i.e., how much someone moves with their mobile device from a starting point – is measured for each of the devices. The location data is anonymized and aggregated to county levels, using the median mobility score as the value for each county. For the measurement used in these analyses, mobility measurements during the pandemic are compared to typical mobility measurements for a given geography to create a mobility index.
Results from tracking the mobility index in Georgia since March 1, 2020, show a substantial drop in mobility as compared to normal travel behavior beginning in mid-March. Social distancing requirements, encouraged quarantine and isolation for vulnerable populations, and increased teleworking, and decreased discretionary travel likely all contribute to this decline in mobility. Beginning in late-April, the mobility index begins to trend upwards, slowly growing each week. Georgia saw a small surge in mobility in early July, but those values quickly subsided, hovering around 75% of typical mobility.
Compared to other states across the US, Georgia’s decline in mobility has been less severe, and Georgia’s mobility appears to be returning to normal faster than both California and New York. While the initial decline in general mobility was less severe in Georgia than in Ohio, both states are beginning to see more normal trends in mobility compared to both California and New York.
States in the Southeastern US have seen similar declines in mobility beginning in early March. While all states in the Southeast have seen growing mobility beginning in early April, Florida and Georgia’s mobility have seen the slowest return so far. Beginning on June 14th, growth in mobility has stalled somewhat in Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, and Georgia.
Similar to statewide trends, both urban, rural, and suburban counties saw a notable decline in mobility in early March. The decline in highly-urbanized Fulton County was the steepest; Fulton County’s mobility index reached an all-time low on April 6th. The suburban counties’ declines in mobility, while still substantial, were less steep than Fulton County. In the same way, the rural counties’ declines were less steep than suburban counties. Mobility in suburban counties also reached their lowest points in early April, but their lowest mobility index values were still higher than Fulton County’s lowest values. Though rural counties’ decreases in mobility have been more varied, it appears that there has been more movement in rural counties than in Fulton County, up until July 6th. Mobility in Fulton County has been increasing rapidly since then.
Urban, rural, and suburban counties began to see increases in movement in mid-April. Urban Fulton County has been the slowest to recover its mobility. The most recent data shows that rural counties have returned to nearly typical mobility in some cases, and suburban counties are approaching those values as well.
Mobility data and COVID-19 cases
Because COVID-19 is easily spread when people come into contact, there may be a correlation between the number of positive COVID-19 cases and mobility scores.
The most recent spike of COVID-19 cases in Georgia began in late June and increased steadily until mid-August. During that time, mobility rates fluctuated, with a spike in mobility around the July 4th holiday and notable decreases in late July and early August. What appears to be the peak of this spike in COVID-19 cases came within 3 weeks of the spike in average mobility in July. Given the virus’ several week incubation period, this indicates that there is some kind of relationship between this mobility metric and the number of cases.
Throughout August, though, this relationship became less clear. From mid-August until late September, mobility measures have remained somewhat constant, fluctuating between 75% and 80% of mobility under normal circumstances (which is not much lower than the 88% peak). During this time, however, cases of COVID-19 have decreased steadily. This could indicate that people have found a new mobility equilibrium and that they are managing to do so in a safe way, likely going to destinations that allow them to socially distance in well-ventilated spaces/outside while wearing masks. Further tracking of travel patterns and positive test rates will provide more insight here.