- Walking during the pandemic surged across the country, outpacing driving in every region
- Midwest sees largest increase in number of people walking, 122% above pre-pandemic levels
- Seattle, Chicago and Milwaukee are among cities where mobility has bounced back significantly after falling dramatically
How much people travel can be a useful metric in measuring the health of an economy — and the pandemic has certainly put the kibosh on mobility. But, since the lockdowns ended and vaccines became widely available, people are once again starting to get out and go places.
So, using data from Apple’s Mobility Report, we analyzed just how much people moved around throughout the pandemic. The data is a compilation of how many people searched for directions or a location on their iPhone in all metros analyzed compared to Monday, January 13, 2020, and also averaged by month. Notably, the data is anonymized and the location is at the metropolitan statistical area (MSA) level. It’s measured as the percentage change in the volume of searches for directions.
Searches for Walking Directions Surge 122% in Midwest
Overall, all of the MSAs analyzed carried the same mobility trends throughout the country. Specifically, there was an immediate and dramatic drop in mobility through April 2020, followed by an uptick into the summer before dropping again heading into winter. Then, as winter waned in 2021 and summer began, another uptick in searches signified more people getting out and moving — but, this time, they did so more than the previous summer.
In particular, there are a couple of reasons for the increased mobility this year: 1) Occupancy restrictions that reduced transmissibility, 2) masking and 3) the wide availability of vaccines.
When broken down by region, it’s easier to see which parts of the country have been more mobile than others. For instance, while searches for driving and walking directions in all regions have rebounded quite a bit, the Midwest and Northeast were slightly more mobile than their Western and Southern counterparts.
In particular, the increase in searches for walking directions is striking. The Midwestern and Northeastern regions surging 122% and 95%, respectively, compared to January 13, 2020 – greatly exceeding the increases in driving directions. Electric scooter and bike-share rentals that are widely available in most cities have also made getting around without a car or public transportation much easier and on-demand.
Indeed, public transit has still not reached pre-pandemic levels in most of the country — only the Northeastern region is back above pre-pandemic levels at 6%. This is partially due to how public transit is structured (as many people are often in enclosed spaces with very close proximity to each other for extended periods of time), whereas driving and walking are far more individualized. Nowadays it’s more appealing, and frankly, healthy, to walk, bike or scoot to your destination rather than crowding on a subway train.
One explanation for this inverse relationship is that people in dense cities with expansive public transit systems — like New York City, Boston, San Francisco and Chicago — are choosing to walk more often and for farther distances instead of taking public transit. Plus, open air is safer than crowding on a subway train.
Seattle Among Cities to Fall, Then Fly
Seemingly, every city had a different way of dealing with the pandemic. Therefore, some cities had more volatility in their mobility data. These cities are identified by periods of drastically reduced mobility, followed by periods of much more movement than the country overall.
The graphic below shows the top five markets that experienced the largest differences between their lows and highs by driving, public transit and walking.
The coastal cities of Seattle and Virginia Beach, Va., had the largest variances for driving, along with the midwestern cities of Chicago, Milwaukee and Grand Rapids, Mich. Seattle actually clocked the largest increase in driving mobility since January 13, 2020, in the nation — up 93% after falling 37% in April 2020.
Meanwhile, residents of Milwaukee and Virginia Beach, Va., are walking more than ever — both reaching highs of 178% and 187% in July, respectively, and far outpacing any other increases in driving anywhere else in the country. Even though these are some of the best U.S. cities for walkability and outdoor access, the cold winter months — combined with occupancy restrictions and outright closures — greatly reduced the number of options available to residents. However, mobility data for warmer summer months showed that open public spaces are incredibly appealing for locals.
To that end, even public transit has bounced back in more densely populated cities: Boston; Austin, Texas; Chicago; and New York City are all above their pre-pandemic levels — up by 30% in Boston’s case — after seeing their ridership diminish significantly, if not completely.
Memphis, Sacramento & Phoenix Remained Relatively Steady
Conversely, other cities experienced much less volatility in the mobility of their residents — representing a more stable environment during the last 18 months. And, while these cities were more stable than the nation overall, they still had their ups and downs just like the rest of the world. Those ups and downs were just less emphatic, on average, and stayed largely within a range of +50% and -50%.
And, while New Orleans has been one of the most stable MSAs for driving directions, it’s still far below its pre-pandemic levels. After initially falling 68% in April 2020, searches for driving directions here are still down 24% from pre-pandemic levels. Further west in San Francisco, searches dropped by 57% in April 2020 before reaching pre-pandemic levels just as summer began this year. Currently, San Francisco is 15% above its pre-pandemic levels.
At the same time, walking searches in Jacksonville, Fla.; Sacramento, Calif.; and Phoenix are continuing to climb, even after rebounding completely by June of 2020. Those searches are up 70%, 65% and 48%, respectively, compared to January 13, 2020.
It’s also worth noting that the cities that experienced less volatility in movement are all less affected by seasonal winter weather. For example, although searches for public transit directions in Kansas City would indicate that it had fared better than others in the country, searches in Cincinnati have been increasingly significantly and steadily since their 2021 lows in January.
Overall, it appears that we’re moving more and more as a nation. And, while this data doesn’t include air travel or hotel bookings, looking for directions is a very strong indicator of traveling — regardless of the means. Granted, the delta variant may very well change the trend we’ve observed in 2021. But, the previous 18 months have shown that, regardless of location, people will get out and go places.
We analyzed Apple Mobility Trends that used anonymized searches for directions by driving, walking and public transit on January 13, 2020, as a base across the top 50 metropolitan statistical areas by population through August 2021. Data for Saturdays and Sundays was excluded. Daily data was aggregated and averaged by month.