COVID's Effect on Miles Traveled | Episode 31

  August 26, 2021

COVID-19 has impacted every aspect of our lives, including our travel habits. Listen as Bob Pishue, transportation analyst at INRIX, shares his mobility analysis that explored transportation trends including miles-driven and travel times.

Download the INRIX 2020 Global Traffic Scorecard.

Transcript

John Eichberger:
Hey, everybody, welcome back to Carpool Chats. I'm John Eichberger with the Fuels Institute. Today, we're going to be talking about travel, vehicle miles traveled. What happened last year during the pandemic? What's happening now? What are the trends we're seeing? We are thrilled to have Bob Pishue with us again with INRIX. Bob, thank you very much for coming back on the program.

Bob Pishue:
Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.

John Eichberger:
Last year, you and I chatted quite a bit about what was going on with miles traveled during the shutdown and after the shutdown. Recently, you guys have issued a new score card looking at miles traveled overall. Can you give us a quick summary of what that report is, what you guys are looking for, what you're trying to find out?

Bob Pishue:
Yeah, every year we put out what we call the Global Traffic Scorecard, and it looks at a thousand cities globally, just to look at how travel patterns and traffic congestion has changed during that year. Not a surprise when we went and looked back at 2020, the main thing driving, not only everything in transportation, but everything in the news, was COVID-19.

Bob Pishue:
We looked at the impact of COVID-19 on travel and how that actually looked city to city, and also country to country. Unsurprisingly, things dropped pretty much far beyond levels that we saw during the Great Recession, or really since travel statistics started to be to be gathered. It was an unprecedented year and we're continuing to follow that up.

Bob Pishue:
Pretty much that's what we do day to day. That's what I do day to day is follow what's the latest trends, what's going on, to measure the impact of COVID-19 and the government shutdown and regulations and things like that.

John Eichberger:
You know, I used your data throughout last year. We were analyzing what's going on in the market, and one of the things that I came out with towards the end of the year was there was so much attention to work from home. As we've published another report last fall that said if everybody that could work from home telecommuted one day a week, we'd reduce emissions by X percent.

John Eichberger:
I started looking at your travel patterns, and by the end of the year, I was telling people miles traveled has almost recovered to pre-pandemic levels, yet nobody's going back to the office. My takeaway was, you know what? You may not be going to the office, but it doesn't mean you're sitting on your rump at home. You're getting out and getting about. Is that what you saw in the data too?

Bob Pishue:
Yeah, I think one of the misconceptions that people have is that travel, even during the peaks, that the majority is work travel. People are traveling for all sorts of reasons. I mean, from shopping to leisure to dropping people off somewhere, like a kid at school or to college or whatever it may be. I mean, there are billions of trips every day and not all of them are to work.

Bob Pishue:
We see a little drop in, or maybe not little, but a significant drop in work trips. That only relates to some percentage points of a drop in total travel. It's not the bulk of travel. I think people are surprised to hear that, yeah, VMT and trips are back up to pre-COVID levels, but it... yeah, but people are working from home. Yeah, but there are a lot of other things going on. We noticed and it's still going through, so it's still going on.

Bob Pishue:
Over the last year plus, I mean, there has been quite a bit of demand for weekend travel. There's been a lot of demand for off-peak travel, mid-day travel and things like that. While the commute travel is still down pretty significantly in the morning, not so much in the afternoon, all of these other areas are kind of picking up the slack, if you will, and people are getting out there and traveling,

John Eichberger:
That's something we've learned when we talk to some of our convenience store partners that their day trip pattern has changed quite a bit. It's not as predictable as it used to be. But I want to explore the concept of discretionary travel and compulsory travel.

John Eichberger:
You mentioned that most people assume most of your travel is getting to and from work. I've had debates over the years, and I've been in the fuel retailing and analytical business for a long time, about the impact of fuel prices on miles traveled. Because I've always argued you have a percentage of your miles traveled that are non-discretionary, and the only way you... the only flexibility you have is on the discretionary side, which I believe to be on the smaller percentage of your miles traveled.

John Eichberger:
I'm going to argue, however, last year that got all blown out of the water. My question to you is, was I right previous, before COVID-19, and am I right now? Now trust me, people lined up to tell me I'm wrong so please, if I'm wrong, tell me.

Bob Pishue:
Well, I think that you're right in a lot of ways. I usually look at it at... Well, first of all, I think that fuel prices are relatively inelastic in general, right? A large increase in fuel prices has a smaller effect on miles traveled. But then now I think you're looking at it, like breaking it down. Okay, what types of trips are most likely to be canceled or changed or something? I think, obviously, discretionary trips.

Bob Pishue:
The question then becomes what is a discretionary trip? There's a lot of debate in transportation about what is a discretionary trip or an unnecessary trip? Really, it becomes hard to... and I know I'm kind of talking some philosophy or a little bit of theory, you know.

John Eichberger:
Hey, I have no problem with waxing poetic on this program, so that's fine.

Bob Pishue:
Okay, all right, all right. But these are the things that keep me up at night. That's how tough life is for me. No, I'm kidding. But I go, is a guy or a mom going to the store at midnight to get diapers, is that a discretionary trip? I mean, how many trips do we take that are really not needed? I mean, is someone just going for a drive around the block to clear their head? I mean, that's still a good, a purposeful trip.

Bob Pishue:
But I will say, I think people do adjust on those long, longer term trips or those long vacation trips. I think people factor that in. But we're seeing so many increases in prices everywhere else, too, from hotel rooms now to food. We have a little bit of inflationary pressures, so I don't know how much gasoline and fuel and what it takes to get there is a part of that, but I don't know how much... It's really tough to single that out.

John Eichberger:
Yeah. You know, I'm going to guess that the discretionary, the I don't have to travel right now, I don't have to drive right now. I think the number of trips that are discretionary last year increased because we were all sitting in a house surrounded by a lot of people, possibly. They were driving us nuts and you know what? I need to go to the store. I think we're out of milk. We just bought milk. Nope. I'm going to go get some fresh milk because that milk's a day old and I need to go get some fresh milk.

Bob Pishue:
Absolutely.

John Eichberger:
We can speculate as to what happened last year all along, but the data, the data is there and the data you guys have been tracking is solid. I think when I looked at your website, I saw something like, in the US total past your miles traveled was about 82% pre-pandemic level. Is that the number that I saw?

Bob Pishue:
Yeah. Yeah. That's about right. But you know, and we have to take into account that we add about two and a half months of normal travel going into about mid March, and then it cratered in April. Down about 60%, which is unheard of in transportation. My gosh, I don't think anyone ever thought that that would be a reaction.

John Eichberger:
Right.

Bob Pishue:
There were a lot of factors as to why. But it shows though, also, a lot of this is on the trip demand side. When you eliminate the demand for trips, whether that be a college closes or something, that eliminates a lot of trip demand and so it's a demand side versus something else going on, like a bridge being down. That would be a supply side or something like that.

Bob Pishue:
But, so anyway, yeah. We saw about 80, it was about 80% of pre-pandemic levels, 85%, but that really varied on where you were in the country. It's not like our typical kind of annual VMT. Oh, it went up 1 to 2% and that's how it goes for everywhere. We saw pockets where, like San Francisco was down a bunch, DC was down a bunch, but Boise, Idaho wasn't down nearly as much.

Bob Pishue:
We saw this patchwork kind of thing of each locality having its own issues. Like Detroit was down a lot. Trips to downtown are still down in Detroit and it looks similar to San Francisco, but obviously those are for different reasons. San Francisco has a lot of tech, that kind of thing. They also had stricter lockdowns, I think. Versus a Detroit, which is manufacturing based and saw different things happen there.

Bob Pishue:
The characteristics of each community, like the local economy, what are their colleges, are there... what does the government workforce look like? Ability to telecommute? All of those things have an effect on travel in each of these metro regions.

John Eichberger:
The other thing that struck me about your report was the distinction between passenger miles traveled, commercial miles traveled. Very different dynamics. It's interesting because you talk about what was the demand side of passenger vehicle travel was what's open? Can I go shopping? Can I go to a restaurant? Can I go to the movie theater? If I cannot, then where am I going to go? Yet the commercial side seemed to be more resilient over time. Talk a little bit about the differences between those two modes of travel.

Bob Pishue:
Yeah, so we took a look at not only passenger travel, so that's my family going out and traveling for whatever reason, going to work, going to school, shopping. But then also freight, so think long... when I say freight too, I mean like long haul trucking fleets. We also track delivery fleets and things like that. But I think what you're talking... and that's a portion of it, but I think the trucking as a whole, generally, I tend to focus on long haul trucking.

Bob Pishue:
I've found that, yeah, it also dipped kind of in that April 2020. I think it dropped 13%, but then it quickly recovered back to a hundred, and it's had a few dips here and there, but nothing major. Which indicates to me, I mean, with all the supply side issues we have going on and shortages and things like that, trucks are still moving and getting goods and services.

Bob Pishue:
In fact, if we kind of take... If we time travel back a year, I mean the talk was moving medical goods around the country, masks, ventilators, whatever it may be. I think, plants and your manufacturing plants that shut down or retooled to create ventilators. I mean, we have this demand for these goods all over the country, so that was actually one of the things we focused on in the report was freight mobility at a time where we... I think it brought back freight mobility in people's minds as something that is vital to the economy of this country.

Bob Pishue:
One of the benefits of... I guess benefits of fewer cars on the road and less congestion was the fact that freight was able to move around a lot more freely and make more deliveries and things like that.

John Eichberger:
Was some of the impetus to the commercial miles traveled, be more resilient because the home delivery market? Did that weigh into this dynamic at all?

Bob Pishue:
I think it weighed... Yeah, I think it weighed in some. I mean, when I'm looking at the data though, I'm kind of like, okay, what did I do? So, I try to go in without already having a conclusion in my mind like, oh, deliveries are up. Of course, that makes sense. But to me, I'm thinking, yeah, but there's downward economic pressure. There's all these other things that could push that lower though. Right? I mean, people are out of work. They can't go to their server job. Are they ordering stuff online because of the income pressure that a lot of folks are feeling right now?

Bob Pishue:
What we found though is, yeah, I mean, pretty much everybody knows delivery. Amazon, the tech companies and especially Amazon did very well during this time period, and that is because of the local delivery fleets. Which, with fewer cars on the road, I think we saw less of a conflict there. I think in a lot of urban areas, there's quite a bit of conflict over the curb space, over curb space and things like that. And those were not as much of an issue, but going forward, it definitely could be.

John Eichberger:
Well, I appreciate your approach that you don't start off with trying to prove an outcome. I remember we had an intern. I said, "I want you to do a bunch of research for me and here's the dataset." He said, "What do you want me to find?" I go, "I want you to read the data and tell me what the data tells you." Now that wasn't fair. He wasn't trained to do that, but that's what I like. I like, you look at the data and then what does it... What's the story the data is telling me and then try to explain what might be contributing to that storyline? Because I think that's a much better way to come up with the answers. Too often, we try to prove a point and reverse engineer that research, and that's just a terrible way to go about providing any knowledge of the market.

Bob Pishue:
Yeah, and transportation data is one part of it. There are... In a lot of these things that we look at, it's just one thing to look at, but it doesn't tell the whole story. Trying to gain a better understanding of what's going on, especially as we look at all of these different cities. What's going on in San Francisco versus Houston versus Miami and all of those things, it's a part of the picture, but it shouldn't necessarily paint the whole picture itself.

John Eichberger:
Now, I'm going to make a quick transition to global perspective. I just want to make one personal commentary. I'm a historian by nature. I've got a history degree and I keep thinking, we talk about COVID-19 and I am feel so sorry for the kids 15, 20 years from now who need to study this. You keep wondering COVID-19, but talking about 2020, I don't understand what happened here?

John Eichberger:
But you know, it's going to be an interesting dynamic when our kids or our grandkids are trying to study and they ask us, "So Pop-pop, what happened back in '19?" "Well, nothing really happened in '19. It was all 2020." "I don't understand. I'm so confused." But that being said, whatever. Now we're going to talk about 2021, maybe even 2022, unfortunately.

John Eichberger:
Your paper though looked at a global perspective. Not all things are created equal, not all markets are the same. What type of major highs did you pull out of looking at different regional areas around the globe as they address the shutdown and the pandemic last year?

Bob Pishue:
Yeah. Well, the number one was the transportation data told... it definitely reflected, first of all, the levels of COVID-19 in these countries. We recall, Spain and Italy got hit really hard with COVID-19 from the get-go, and you could definitely see that in their vehicle miles traveled data.

Bob Pishue:
I think, I mean, off the top of my head, I mean, Spain was down something like 80% in April, and we saw that earlier and then we saw the other government restrictions follow. Like the UK and US, and Germany not as much, and some rebounded differently than others.

Bob Pishue:
Germany and the US were close to the same in terms of you didn't see a lot of ebbs and flows after the dip, right. It kind of came back and you saw a little bit of pluses and minuses on VMT, but it's been a slow, steady growth. Versus Spain has been up and down like the price of Bitcoin or something. The volatility-

John Eichberger:
With or without tweets, right?

Bob Pishue:
Yeah. I'm not endorsing anything. No, just no, but you definitely see though the effects of government policy and how that's related to transportation. Then you can kind of get a feel for how those different things had an effect on the economy. We definitely saw sort of the tail of COVID-19 through some of this transportation data and how governments responded had a lot to do with how that recovered moving forward.

John Eichberger:
I think it's fascinating to evaluate how last year went from the VMT perspective. Again, a history major, how you analyze a segment in time is all based upon what kind of angle you want to take at it, and what kind of unique insights can you gain from that perspective?

John Eichberger:
As we are now, and we're recording this, it's the end of summer 2021. We've got 2020 in our rear view. We are hoping, we don't know what's going to happen in the fall of 2021. Have you seen any type of trends in the first six, seven months of this year that are noteworthy that we should be thinking about?

Bob Pishue:
Yeah. One thing that we noticed was that throughout the pandemic, I'll fast forward to three months ago, actually, so to May 2021, maybe April 2021. The amount... so while VMT was hit or exceeded pre-COVID levels in a lot of these places, trips did not. Trip counts were a little bit lower, which a VMT is the same. If trip counts are lower, that means that the average trip distance is up.

Bob Pishue:
The typical trip that someone was taking was about 15% longer in terms of mileage than their pre-COVID comparison trip. Now that being said, now in the last four or five months, probably in part due to vaccines and the opening up, we've actually seen trip counts come up and be at pre- COVID levels.

Bob Pishue:
That's one thing just in the most recent few months that we've actually seen is that, oh, wow, trips are starting to go back up. That indicates, at least initially, that people are leaving the house, they have somewhere to go, it's not a travel distance question. It's a hop in the car or bike or whatever. Maybe trips are ups, or up to pre-COVID levels. That was another thing.

Bob Pishue:
Then this huge thing that we're still seeing, and that is the lag in the morning commute is still going on. Although it's not as prominent as it was at the end of last year, we're still seeing mid-day trips strong, and mileage. I'm going to use those interchangeably right now. Mid-day is still strong, afternoon peak is still strong, but the morning peak is still largely absent in a lot of these metro areas.

John Eichberger:
Is the data showing any fluttering in behavior with news cycles? We see a lot more coverage on the Delta variant. We're seeing a lot more coverage about mask mandates, possible shutting down things, restrictions. Does that manifest itself in the data of miles traveled at all?

Bob Pishue:
It does. Yeah, and I just looked at actually that this morning. I wanted to see how last week compared to the previous weeks, because last week was pretty much... I mean, LA County put in their mask mandate. Other counties are giving recommendations. CDC has come out and said some things, so I took a look at it.

Bob Pishue:
I haven't got into it in any granular detail, but I'll tell you that it definitely... VMT went down last week in every major... Went down or stayed the same, so no positive jump in any metro area I looked at in the United States. There was an effect. I'm still trying to figure out what the data is showing, but it does have an impact.

John Eichberger:
I think that's something that our leaders and the media need to be aware of is that words matter. Words have an impact, and if a news cycle is causing a change in miles traveled, that's going to have a direct economic impact on businesses. Because if you're not driving, you're probably not buying much, not frequenting a local establishment.

John Eichberger:
Everybody that I've heard, all the public officials say, we're not going back to what we did last year. We know a lot more about how to address the spread and contain it without having to do the draconian shutdowns we did last year. But understanding that the words they choose and how they communicate it will have a direct effect on economic prosperity and opportunity. I mean, we really need to keep them thinking about that.

John Eichberger:
For those of us who are constantly interested in what's going on with travel, where can they go to get more information for what you guys are doing on a regular basis?

Bob Pishue:
Yeah. I would just... so inrix.com. I-N-R-I-X.com, and forward slash blog if you want to follow the blog. I usually put up a post or two a week. We've got a couple other people looking at stuff. I'm always just taking new angles, looking at things differently. Like what's the trip demand for downtowns versus more suburban areas? All sorts of stuff that we look at. Inrix.com and subscribe to the blog if you want to receive those.

John Eichberger:
Oh, Bob, thank you very much for joining us again. Thank you for everything you guys do. It's a window into the economy that not very many organizations are putting out there, and especially not for the public good. I mean, you guys are putting stuff out there. You don't have to pay to get these blog analyses and some of these reports, so it's really a public service. I really appreciate you doing.

Bob Pishue:
Yeah. Thank you very much.

John Eichberger:
For those of you back home, if you want to pay attention to what's going on, visit inrix.com. You're not going to be sorry. Some great insight, and thank you guys for watching Carpool Chats. We'll see you next time. See you later.