Transportation Usage Is Way Down During the Pandemic, Though This Varies Greatly by Neighborhood

August 12, 2020

Since March, the stay-at-home order has completely reconfigured mobility patterns across the state. We’ve been tracking real-time data that show both the dramatic reductions in movement during spring and the changes in mobility patterns as people sought leisure and some destinations reopened during the summer months. Since late May we’ve begun to see modest increases in mobility as some destinations have reopened and people start to leave their homes more often.

MBTA rapid transit ridership

Almost every MBTA line saw ridership decline by over 90 percent in the weeks following the stay-at-home order.  For a typical workday, this equates to a loss of roughly 800,000 riders – with losses felt most acutely on the Silver line. Blue Line ridership declined less than all other lines, perhaps due to a higher number of frontline workers who depend on the line.

Since May, ridership across the rapid transit system has gradually increased, though not evenly. Blue Line ridership has rebounded the fastest, followed by the Red Line and Orange Line. Green and Silver Line ridership numbers have been slower to show signs of recovery.

Data on gated station entries provides a more granular look at MBTA boarding numbers by location. The following graphics show a year-over-year comparison of June gated station entries across the MBTA system for the Red, Orange and Blue Lines (Green and Silver Lines have a number of un-gated stations and the data is not available for these lines). While entries are down across all stations in the system, some notable patterns emerge when examining the stations with the highest and lowest reductions in usage. Expectedly, some of the stations in major office job centers, such as South Station, Kendall/MIT, and Government Center have lost the highest percentage of ridership. Stations near medical job hubs, such as Tufts Medical Center and Charles-MGH, have seen lower reductions.

Among stations serving largely residential neighborhoods, there are also notable differences. Stations along the Ashmont branch of the red line have retained more ridership than stations along the Braintree branch (with the exception of Quincy Center). Similarly, many of the stations along the Blue Line serving neighborhoods in East Boston and Revere have not seen the same reductions in entries as locations in Cambridge or parts of Jamaica Plain. The general pattern suggests that lower-income neighborhoods have seen fewer reductions in entries, highlighting the critical importance of public transit to low-income households and those working in “front line” professions.

Road traffic

To analyze road traffic we look at weekly data from toll gantries along the Mass Pike for four regions of the state going west to east (Westfield to Allston). The graphs show the rate of vehicles per hour heading eastbound at 15-minute periods across all weekdays.

In early April, we saw sharp declines in traffic volumes across all gantries, by 50 to 75 percent. The smallest decline occurred at the Westfield gantry – 47 percent. A larger portion of traffic in this part of the state is made up of trailer trucks, many of which are still operating, and residents have fewer transportation options in these less densely populated parts of the state. The further east you go, the sharper the drop, with the biggest decreases occurring at the Allston gantry.

Since early May, road traffic has been ticking upward, with a notably sharper increase in June. Traffic at the Allston gantry is back to around 45 percent of its pre-crisis level. Gantries to the west are seeing more of a rebound: both Westfield and Charlton are now only roughly 7-9 percentage points below their March 2nd level.

Amid these rebounds, one notable difference between pre and post-COVID traffic is rush hour commuting. The regular spikes at the beginning and end of the typical workday are now much less pronounced – with the possible exception of the morning commute in Weston - a good indicator of the changing rhythm of the workday.

Air travel

After grinding to nearly a halt during the spring, activity at Logan Airport has begun to rebound in recent months. The initial drop included both total flights (77.9 percent) and passenger volume (97.4 percent), relative to the prior year. June data shows a small improvement in both metrics, mostly driven by an uptick in domestic flights.

While mail and freight volume also decreased, the impact has been less acute. In fact, some cases airlines have shifted more to freight in order to continue business. Despite the overall decline in freight and mail activity, volume has actually increased in the express/small cargo category, as many are having goods shipped to them during lockdown (up 11.7 percent higher volume in June 2020 relative to June 2019). This increase has helped keep freight volume relatively robust relative to other airport traffic.

Destinations

Through a trove of cell phone GPS data, Google has unique (sometimes troubling) access to data on our personal lives. It has made topline data available during the COVID crisis through regular releases of Google Mobility Reports. The data is available for counties, states and countries worldwide and gives us a sense for how much different sorts of otherwise regular activity has declined.

As the U.S. reopens, mobility patterns suggest Americans are starting to increase activity, although many measures remain well below pre-crisis levels. Time spent in residences has fallen from mid-April highs to levels approaching pre-crisis patterns. Trips to parks are much more variable, but as the weather improves, more people are spending times outdoors. Massachusetts parks appear to see higher visitation rates than nationwide, but parks in Suffolk County are only just above pre-crisis levels of visitation.

Travel to workplaces and retail and recreation establishments remain more depressed, with local levels even further below the national average. While traveling to places of work are down across the entire country, travel to workplaces is further below pre-crisis levels in Massachusetts, and particularly in Suffolk County. Travel to destinations for retail and recreation have shown a steady climb over the past couple of months. While visits and time spent at these locations in Suffolk County remain well below pre-crisis levels, in Massachusetts and the U.S. as a whole visits to these destinations are approaching “normal” levels.

International comparisons are also pretty interesting. The United States has adopted more physical distancing than Sweden, which has gotten lots of attention for not imposing strict lockdowns across the board. By contrast, physical distancing in the U.S. is now slightly lower than in Italy and remains much lower than the United Kingdom, which are both countries that had worse outbreaks than the U.S.

       
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