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Traffic Data Useful in Monitoring, Planning Around COVID-19

Movement data pointed to an increase in vehicle activity on Easter Sunday in several U.S. counties. This revelation comes as many states urge residents to avoid nonessential travel to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

A nearly empty stretch of highway in California's Bay Area.
A nearly empty stretch of highway in California's Bay Area.
Submitted Photo/ Aclima
On Easter Sunday, Americans in a number of communities got in their cars and went someplace, despite state stay-at-home orders aimed at stopping nonessential travel.

That’s what traffic analytics firm StreetLight Data found by looking at traffic movement, known as vehicle miles traveled (VMT) across the nation’s roughly 3,000 counties on Easter Sunday, and comparing it to the previous Sunday.

The drastic reductions in vehicle movement are the result of stay-at-home directives put in place in nearly every state as a mechanism to slow the transfer of the coronavirus. The shutdowns began to take widespread effect in mid-March. StreetLight Data uses March 1 as the benchmark for measuring VMT.

Even though nationwide VMT reached its lowest point on Sunday, April 12, the metric increased across roughly 700 counties, compared to the previous week, according to StreetLight Data statistics, which uses location data from smartphones to glean any number of transportation insights.

The increases were largely concentrated in low-population, non-urban locations in California, Texas, Oregon, Washington and Utah. 

“It may just be that people in cities are sheltering in place because it’s denser and they’re more concerned,” said Martin Morzynski, vice president of marketing and product management at StreetLight Data.

As the shutdown moves into its second month in many communities across the nation, the data showing movement increases is helpful as officials plan messaging around upcoming holidays like Memorial Day, a popular three-day weekend and the unofficial start of summer. The data starts to point to trend movements in various counties, allowing local officials to start to forecast how the community is moving and where it may be headed, said Morzynski.

“You can use this information to have an understanding of where you’re coming from, two or three days before the event,” he explained.

Also, with the baseline all but established — traffic has declined an average of 70 percent across the country during the COVID-19 crisis — officials can start to see how strongly stay-at-home orders are being followed by examining VMT data.

“It made it possible to look at things on the downslope, and now I think we anticipate that the tool will be very useful in kind of watching for the upticks, and what happens in the next two or three months as we gradually return to some sort of normalcy,” said Morzynski.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.