From skies to streets to subways, the coronavirus pandemic has brought dramatic and unequal changes to the ways that global societies move. Travel demand plummeted as stay-at-home orders and economic shutdowns swept the world, creating conditions that varied by geography, job status, income, race, and other factors.
These patterns reveal the deep socioeconomic inequalities built into the world's cities, which have profoundly affected the pandemic's uneven death toll to date. Now travel is bouncing back, even as coronavirus continues to claim lives and with further outbreaks likely to come. The lessons of the great transportation freeze of 2020 could guide future policies as many cities reopen and attempt to build a healthier future.
Nearly six months on, snapshots of global data paint a picture of where, how, and why cities stopped moving, and what the future may hold as the coronavirus travel freeze begins to thaw.
Travel restrictions all but halted flights from China in the early months of 2020, but that didn't stop the disease from spreading out of Wuhan, site of the first urban outbreak. As infections cropped up in global cities in January and February, social distancing measures and lockdowns caused overall surface travel to dive, first gradually, then suddenly.
Maps using traffic and search data from TomTom, Mapbox, and Apple's Mobility Index show how this happened, and how transportation demand is beginning to creep back up. The Apple Mobility Index data shows how different modes of travel compare to one another in 12 global cities, based on use of Apple's navigation app. Though it hardly captures every trip, the index is a window into broad trends, which themselves reflect the range of government responses to Covid-19 seen around the world.
Well-versed in pandemic protocol after its 2003 SARS outbreak, Taiwan emerged early on from coronavirus as a global exemplar; rigorous testing, tracing, and isolation tactics minimized case numbers and kept the economy open. Accordingly, the capital Taipei had a relatively modest decline in travel, with demand for driving falling 42% from a January 2020 baseline. In contrast, Milan, which implemented strict lockdown measures following a rapid surge in severe cases, experienced an 90% drop. Government measures in Mumbai after its first case led to a similarly massive decline.
The shifts also varied by mode: While declines in walking were larger than they were for driving, the most dramatic was on public transit. Some city governments explicitly told residents to avoid subways and buses if they could to reduce transmission risk. Among them was New York City, where about 56% of commuters normally use transit. Now, as driving and walking start to rebound around the world, public transit use has barely returned in many places.
Travel on newer forms of mobility was also hit hard. In April, Uber's gross global ride-hailing bookings fell by as much as 80% compared to the previous year, the Information reported. An April analysis of credit card data by the New York Times found that spending on electric scooter rentals had fallen the most of all modes, by nearly 100%, though part of that was because operators pulled out of many cities while laying off large numbers of their workforce.
One countercurrent was in bicycling. Bike-share systems around the world gained popularity as commuters fled transit systems: In Beijing, the three largest bike-share systems reported a 150% increase in use by May, according to the research firm ITDP. Ride volumes grew some 67% on New York City's bike-sharing system in early March; though use dropped under the ensuing economic shutdown, officials predict a longer-term surge in cycling as the city recovers. London's transit authority similarly anticipates a potential 10-fold increase in cycling in the coming years.
Consumers also bought their own wheels: Market researchers at NPD Group estimate that personal bike sales in the US nearly doubled in March 2020, compared to the previous year.
Clearer skies, speedier streets
With an estimated three billion people told to stay home by late March, the effects on the environment were rapid and noticeable. Los Angeles had its longest stretch of clean air since the 1980s. For the first time in decades, the Himalayas were visible from parts of India. Nitrogen dioxide, found in vehicle exhaust, fell by as much as 60% over northern China, Western Europe and the US in early 2020 compared to the same time in 2019, two studies published in Geophysical Research Letters found. The drop in transportation emissions in the Wuhan region alone may have prevented more than 12,000 deaths, nearly 2.5 times the mortalities attributed to Covid-19 in China by early May, researchers wrote in the Lancet.
Many transportation officials viewed the empty streets as a chance to reorganize them. To enable social distancing for pedestrians and cyclists still on the road, and to expand access to the outdoors, at least 100 cities around the world, including Nairobi, London, Bogota, Mexico City, New York, Los Angeles, and Sydney, instituted policies such as turning sections of their cleared-out roads into pedestrian corridors and adding new bike lanes. In many cases, these changes were temporary, but in others they were announced as permanent.
Still, streets weren't completely open. While light traffic may have saved lives by decreasing pollution, it also cost them in another respect. In many parts of the world, those who took to the open lanes traveled at higher average speeds than before; in several US states and cities, this resulted in spikes in traffic fatalities — an unexpected outcome for governments struggling to meet Vision Zero road safety goals. (On the other hand, road deaths declined in countries with stricter social-distancing lockdowns, including virtually all of southeast Asia.)
Traveling while Black and Brown
In mid-June, the global coronavirus death toll surpassed 430,000. In many countries, the disease has disproportionately claimed the lives of immigrants, the working poor, and people of color. In the US, where more than 110,000 people have died, Black people have been more than 3.5 times more likely to be killed by the virus than White people, and Latino people have been nearly twice as likely.
One of numerous reasons that these minority groups have suffered so deeply is that they are overrepresented among the world's essential workers: the doctors, nurses, orderlies, bus drivers, grocery clerks, factory workers, teachers, caretakers, pharmacists and emergency responders holding societies together. And although their ability to get to work has been deemed pandemic-critical, their commutes have not all been smooth or equal.
In the US, for example, a disproportionate share of people with jobs that qualify as essential work do not own a car, according to an analysis based on US Census data by TransitCenter, a think tank. It estimated that 28% of these workers normally ride public transit. That analysis also found that Black people, who make up 12% of the US workforce, are overrepresented in this group: They make up some 29% of all transit-riding essential workers.
During the pandemic, the demographic make-up on many transit systems has skewed even more toward minority groups. In Toronto, a preliminary survey of 2,700 transit riders before and after lockdowns in mid-March found that those in the "after" group were more likely to have a disability, have an income below $80,000, and identify as Middle Eastern, Black, Latino, or Asian than those before. Racial disparities have shown up in London's post-pandemic Tube ridership, said James Fox, a UK-based transport demand researcher at the Rand Corporation.
Riding trains and buses through the pandemic has been a perilous affair. Facing large workforce shortages due to operator illness, and huge financial shortfalls due to a lack of fare revenue, transit agencies around the world reduced service. Passengers in cities like London and New York have thus been forced to board fewer and therefore more crowded trains and buses, despite social-distancing orders.
New York City subway ridership data shows how these risks weighed heavily on immigrant communities and neighborhoods of color where large numbers of residents continued to travel to their essential jobs and other activities. Total station entries dropped a massive 91% by the end of March, a decline led by Manhattan, the city's Whitest and most affluent borough, where more than 400,000 residents departed entirely. Yet working-class neighborhoods of color in the Bronx, Queens, and parts of Brooklyn continued to ride at significantly higher rates: As the adjacent chart shows, the higher the non-white share of population, the less dramatic the decline in subway ridership, as measured by turnstile entries.
Even stronger was the relationship to income: Many of the city's wealthiest communities stopped using their subway stations almost completely, while the poorest census tracts in the Bronx experienced the least change in ridership, according to the turnstile data.
Routes to the future
As stay-at-home orders lift and economies pick up pace, preliminary signs of a post-Covid transportation landscape have begun to emerge. Yet, like the pandemic itself, they point to divergent outcomes.
"I think we'll see shifts to other non-motorized modes available in the city, but also likely more auto dependency," said Candace Brakewood, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
Driving is rebounding all over the world, and it could eventually return stronger than ever, depending on how long commuters remain wary of public transit. There are early signs of this in some Chinese cities, the first to confront the coronavirus and some of the first to reopen shuttered economies. For example, by mid-June, weekday morning rush hour traffic in Shenzhen had risen 18% over its levels from the same time in 2019, according to TomTom's global traffic index. Vehicle sales are also creeping upwards across China, as has global demand for gasoline.
With the threat of the virus lingering in the air, it may take years before buses, trains, and other communal modes of travel see ridership return to pre-pandemic levels, especially in countries where large portions of the population can choose between modes, researchers say. Yet the social and environmental consequences of a future with more vehicles on the road present another mortal risk: Already, transportation makes up 24% of global CO2 emissions, and traffic fatalities have already been rising in many parts of the globe.
A number of cities hope to combat those effects and offer safe alternatives to transit with a slew of new policies and plans. For example, Bogotá, Colombia, plans to create 76 kilometers of new bike lanes while limiting capacity on its rapid bus system to about a third of what it was before. Large portions of the historic cores in both Paris and London will strictly limit vehicle access; the UK government has announced a £2 billion package to create bike lanes and safer sidewalks nationwide as it anticipates shifts away from transit. Milan, where heavy air pollution likely played a role in the city's severe outbreak, has said it will turn 35 kilometers of its street network into bike and pedestrian lanes, and is developing a scheme to help commuters stagger their trips on public transport in order to minimize crowding.
Yet an untold number of global commuters — many of them in the densest cities, but some of them in rural and suburban areas — will still rely on transit. Many of them will be the same commuters who have been riding through the pandemic: a largely lower-income and disproportionately Brown and Black workforce who can't afford to turn to cars. While many more affluent, white-collar workers are expected and even encouraged to continue working from home, other people whose jobs can't be done from home will have to resume commuting.
Whether transit will present a persistent risk of infection is still unknown: Transit system workers in the US and the UK have died of coronavirus in staggering numbers, yet few cases around the world have been directly linked to riding buses and trains. Two recent studies of Covid-19 clusters in France and Austria found no such connection, and many cities with heavily transit-reliant workforces, including Taipei and Tokyo, have had very low infection rates.
Public transit does not have to create health risks if riders and agencies take precautions, said Daizong Liu, a transport researcher for the World Resources Institute in Beijing. Transit use has been climbing back up in Chinese cities and has not appeared to contribute to a second wave of infections. "By the second half of the pandemic period, everyone was carefully using buses and metros — wearing masks, not touching other people, and having their temperatures checked," said Liu. "Transit can still have a good future for the next phase, after the pandemic."
But in some countries, agencies feeling the financial impacts of the pandemic may lack the resources to implement ideal safety protocols on social distancing, sanitation and temperature checks. The US transit industry alone faces an estimated financial shortfall of nearly $50 billion. Some routes could be permanently eliminated, potentially leaving riders with fewer options, longer commutes and crowded vehicles.
Especially for people of color, the enforcement of new public health requirements on transit systems and other spaces presents an additional safety risk. For two weeks in March, Black people accounted for 35 of 40 NYPD arrests for breaking "social distancing" rules in Brooklyn. And a history of disproportionate and excessive policing of Black communities sheds a worrying light on other new safety rules.
"I am concerned with my safety when I have to don a mask to go outside," said Charles Brown, a transportation researcher and professor of planning and public policy at Rutgers University, echoing an uneasiness that other Black Americans have expressed since the pandemic began.
Brown also cautioned that aggregate datasets, such as the ones reviewed in this article, "hide the true disparities that exist in our society, especially as it concerns low-income and minority communities" — in many cases the very same communities hit hardest by the virus itself. Indeed, on other transportation matters, there is very little data at all. This is particularly true for measuring informal transportation networks in developing countries, and for some minority groups such as Indigenous people, who are rarely well accounted for in academic or government analyses.
Yet the data that are available show that sweeping prognostications about the future of transportation require scrutiny. There is not one way that society's movements will shift in the wake of this pandemic. Similar to the health and economic impacts of the virus itself, the health and safety of the world's streets, skies and subways will vary depending on who is traveling through them, and on the policies and priorities that leaders establish now as protections.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement