Mobility in the Pandemic — and After

Experts Say Now Is Time to Consider New Policy

Quick Summary

  • Scholars on UC Davis LIVE: COVID-19 encourage policymakers to act before new habits set in
  • Survey finds car transportation has recovered more quickly than public transportation
  • The pandemic seems to be causing lasting changes in how people live and work — at least for people who are able to work remotely
  • Some people who can telecommute are moving away from walkable communities, sometimes giving up incentives to walk

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on how much people move around, their means of transportation and on who gets to stay at home. There could be long-term shifts in how we use transportation — and policymakers need to start addressing these changes before new habits are set, according to two UC Davis experts appearing on UC Davis LIVE: COVID-19 Aug. 13.

“The pandemic has completely disrupted transportation,” said Giovanni Circella, Honda Distinguished Scholar for New Mobility Studies and director of the 3 Revolutions Future Mobility Program at the UC Davis Institute for Transportation Studies. “Many things are changing.”

Circella and Michael Springborn, associate professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy, discussed their work and took viewer questions on how the pandemic has impacted transportation and the intersection of mobility and wealth.

Surveying travel habits

In a survey of travel habits in California and several major cities across the United States before the pandemic, Circella and colleagues were especially interested in how people were adopting new mobility options such as ridesharing and rented scooters. With the onset of COVID-19, they repeated and expanded their survey, targeting 15 regions of the United States and two regions in Canada, and surveying more than 11,000 people. 

In the short term, there was a big decrease in travel overall as people followed stay-at-home orders, bringing short-term benefits in reduced pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and vehicle collisions. But as people began to move around again, car transportation has recovered more quickly than public transport, they found.

With less ridership, public transportation systems face reduced revenues just as local and state government budgets are hit by the weak economy. That means funding is becoming a big issue for public transport, Circella said. While people may shy away from using trains and buses in a pandemic, public transportation has other benefits in reducing pollution and traffic congestion.

Mobility, wealth and work

The pandemic seems to be causing lasting changes in how people live and work — at least for people who are able to work remotely.

“People are moving to be close to their parents, or setting up home offices. Will people still live close to their jobs at all?” Circella said. If employers make a long-term switch to telecommuting, they may no longer need large, permanent offices, forcing changes in how we think about office space and using space more efficiently — for instance, not increasing office space even with an increase in work force.


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But those options are not open to everyone. Springborn and colleagues recently used aggregated cell phone data to study the relationship between mobility and wealth. [The data they used is at the level of a census tract, not individual phones.]

Before the pandemic, they found, people in the top 20 percent of income level were most likely to travel away from home. But after the pandemic hit in mid-March, high earners were more likely to stay home — jumping from 25 percent to 45 percent — than people with the lowest 20 percent of incomes.

“There were really stark changes,” he said.

People at lower income levels are more likely to have jobs that require them to be physically present — for example, in restaurants or retail — and are also more likely to have lost their jobs or had hours reduced in the downturn.

“It’s really clear that Black and Latinx communities have borne the brunt of the pandemic,” Springborn said. There are multiple overlapping reasons for that, including wealth, access to health care and prevalence of pre-existing conditions, he said, and researchers still have work to do to figure out which of these have the most impact. But it’s clear that we need public policy that focuses on those communities, he said. Ensuring access to reliable health care and paid sick leave would have the greatest benefits, Springborn said.

A changing travel landscape

The reduction in travel during the pandemic has affected both established travel industries and “new-mobility” companies. Uber’s Jump rental bike and e-scooter business merged with Lime, which rents electric scooters. Car rental giant Hertz filed for bankruptcy in May, and major airlines have scaled back operations and taken planes out of service. There are likely to be more bankruptcies and mergers across the travel sector that will impact the availability and pricing of services on the market, Circella said.

California’s high-speed rail system, already troubled by cost overruns and delays, could face more challenges in a tight budget. By contrast, European high-speed rail networks have traditionally had better government support and could even benefit from the weakness of airlines and increased government funding as part of stimulus packages as economies recover, Circella said.

A window for policy changes

Some cities are adopting policies to incentivize “active transport” such as walking and bicycling as alternatives to cars or public transport.

“I see some positive sign,” for more walkable communities, Circella said. However, Springborn noted that at least in the short term, people who can telecommute are moving out of “walkable” cities, which tend to be expensive places to live.

“There is a need for policy changes to get people out of their cars after the pandemic,” Springborn said. It will also be important to promote transition to electric vehicles, Circella said. Electrification addresses greenhouse gas emissions, at least in California, which already boasts a clean energy mix for electricity production, although it does not by itself help with other problems such as congestion.

It’s the right time to think about post-pandemic transportation and mobility policy, Springborn said. 

“I think there will be a window for policy change, when we are changing back to a more open world [after the pandemic], and we will want to have these programs and initiatives ready before people settle back into long-term patterns,” he said. 

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