The rise in cases of COVID-19, which is the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, across the United States has raised important and unique questions about public health and travel.
In cities like Wuhan, China, which is where COVID-19 was first observed and is thought to have originated, the drastic reduction in travel has been observable through satellite images that have tracked a decrease in nitrogen dioxide emissions due to shuttered factories and idled vehicles.
Outside China, air travel restrictions and people choosing to cancel trips due to worry over COVID-19’s spread have resulted in a noticeable dip in air travel, with concern growing over the trend’s broader impacts on the tourism industry and the airlines themselves.
While the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States at the time of this writing is lower than the number in countries like Italy and South Korea, certain regions like Seattle, Washington, have experienced community spread of the disease and are seeing a daily increase in cases as testing is expanded.
These events raise important short- and long-term questions for governments collecting survey data. Whereas the US Census Bureau has built-in pandemic preparedness and can marshal the resources of the federal government to support its data collection efforts, smaller agencies may need to quickly adapt ongoing or planned survey research in the event of a local outbreak.
COVID-19 will produce changes in travel behavior that transportation agencies need to plan for and quantify in their survey programs
Given how regions and populations have reacted to the spread of COVID-19 to date, it is reasonable to assume these changes may affect the data quality and sample representativeness of individual travel behavior data collected.
The potential for sudden and pronounced changes in individual travel behaviors means that transportation agencies should develop contingency plans for pausing, modifying, or delaying travel survey programs following an uptick in local COVID-19 cases.
While it is difficult to predict what travel changes will result or what threshold should exist to pause or discontinue surveying, active continued monitoring of local travel behaviors offers the data decision-makers need to make informed choices. These thresholds will also vary depending on the region’s size or proximity to an outbreak, with larger metropolitan areas requiring a different approach than smaller ones.
For studies that are underway, transportation agencies should actively monitor key metrics such as average daily trip rates, number of reported zero-trip days, systematic reductions in certain trip purpose categories, and rolling response rates. These metrics will help agencies proactively detect an uptick in localized atypical travel behaviors. Ideally, these metrics would be monitored on a daily or weekly basis so the survey can be paused or modified and any atypical travel behavior data discarded.
For scheduled studies, particularly those planned for this spring, transportation agencies should monitor traffic counts, transit ridership, or travel volumes from passively collected data (“big data”) sources, which can provide real-time insights into any travel changes. If behavioral shifts are observed prior to the launch of a planned study, agencies should consider delaying the survey until the fall since the data collected during atypical periods will likely not be representative of normal travel behaviors.
Transportation agencies could go one step further and add COVID-19-related questions to travel diary surveys. These questions could ask respondents about their reasons for not traveling that day and why they chose one mode instead of another. Questions could also focus on deliveries to help quantify the shift (if any) to online shopping or grocery delivery. These questions will allow agencies to later quantify the impact of COVID-19 on travel behaviors.
Apart from updating survey instruments, transportation agencies can also stay ahead of changes by monitoring key federal surveys like the census and the National Health Interview Survey. These federal surveys will likely employ best practices as surveys evolve and adapt to the presence of COVID-19 in communities.
Similarly, surveys that require in-field interviews, meetings, or focus groups will require different actions given the increased risk for person-to-person transmission in these settings. To that end, transportation agencies can take proactive steps by consulting guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and modifying their practices accordingly.
Overall, the steps an agency would take to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 in many ways mirror contingency planning protocols for natural disasters or other events. In both cases, surveys must anticipate and plan for the unexpected and adapt accordingly.
Transportation agencies can play an important role during broader public responses to COVID-19
While the bulk of the effort of responding to COVID-19 will fall to regional health agencies, hospitals, and care facilities, transportation agencies can still prepare for and support the overall response.
In the case of a localized outbreak, transportation agencies can anticipate and plan for major disruptions to airports and the local transit system.
That said, there are still many unknowns about what the effects of such outbreaks will be on individual travel choices. Even Lyft and Uber appear to disagree over whether COVID-19 will result in more or fewer trips by individuals using their ride-hailing services.
Despite these uncertainties, transportation agencies can also prepare for and support access planning for medical centers and other locations likely to see an influx of travelers during a COVID-19 outbreak.
Supportive efforts in these cases could include additional signage or shuttle bus services; planning would mirror event access planning, though the durations may exceed short-term events depending on how long the outbreak lasts.
Finally, in the event of continued community spread of COVID-19, data on people’s movements and travel will also take on newfound importance as part of contact tracing efforts for those affected. Transportation agencies can support these efforts by making sure traffic count, toll, and transit data are all up to date and accessible in the event they are needed.
COVID-19 requires agile, outside-the-box thinking
In just two months, COVID-19 went from a disease no one had ever heard of to an emergent public health threat necessitating sometimes drastic government-led efforts to contain it.
Transportation agencies should manage these risks by adopting individualized contingency plans that include go/no-go recommendations for travel survey research programs not yet underway.
As a partner to many transportation agencies grappling with these questions and unknowns, RSG stands ready to provide timely, high-level travel information for areas affected by COVID-19.
By leveraging our passively collected location-based services data engine, we are monitoring key travel markets across the United States each day. These data can be segmented by trip purpose and be used to inform survey data collection period decisions in the event a systemic drop off or reduction in travel is observed in a region affected by COVID-19.
By asking these questions now, transportation agencies can also begin taking appropriate actions to preserve the representativeness of the data they’re collecting while developing a framework to support current and future preparedness efforts.