Update: Travel Surveys in the Time of COVID-19

Early observations of agency responses to COVID-19-related travel behavior changes and their effects on in-field or recurring travel surveys

April 14, 2020

Orian Welling


Photo by Michael Walter on Unsplash

Life in the United States and around the world has rapidly changed since RSG first offered suggestions for transportation and planning agencies conducting travel surveys during regional outbreaks of COVID-19.

In just a few weeks, most Americans have had their lives and routines upended by unprecedented state or local stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions, which grow in number daily. Millions more have lost their jobs or soon will. Compounding these challenges is the fact most Americans now fear for their own health and the health of their families and friends.

Quantifying the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on people’s lives would be an extraordinarily difficult task in the best of circumstances, but it is nearly impossible to do in real time given how rapidly the situation is developing.

Despite these challenges, agencies are adapting by using near-term monitoring, sketch planning, and synthesis initiatives to understand and characterize the COVID-19-related impacts on transportation in their regions. With this shift, some research and analysis efforts are being postponed. In parallel, the steady progression toward recurrent or continuous data for evaluating changing travel patterns and behaviors has taken on newfound importance for practitioners seeking to conduct shorter-term impact assessments and understand longer-term changes.

Transportation and planning agencies across the United States are grappling with and adapting to federal, state, and local COVID-19-related actions

Transportation and planning agencies, like the rest of us, are working to figure out how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many agencies are working remotely, evaluating the impact on active projects, providing guidance on ongoing operations, trying to predict the effect on funding, and doing their best to help their employees stay healthy and productive.

Across RSG’s portfolio of active projects, we have observed agencies taking promising and proactive steps to plan for what comes next. These steps include ensuring the quality and representativeness of their core modeling and planning datasets and quickly evaluating ongoing changes during the pandemic response efforts.

These steps require great thoughtfulness and care in messaging. Peoples’ lives are undergoing great change and stress, and any agency-led efforts to understand the associated impact on the transportation system must be viewed through that lens.

Here are a few recent agency-initiated actions we’ve observed and continue to monitor given their potential applicability to other agencies or regions seeking to quantify the impact of COVID-19 on residents’ travel and agency operations.

Modifying Ongoing Surveys to Begin to Quantify COVID-19-Related Changes

Several state agencies with ongoing longitudinal long-distance travel behavior surveys have modified the study approach and survey questionnaires. These adjustments are meant to help agencies understand the changes on the horizon for travel planning and the cancellation of planned long-distance trips. The added questions help account for COVID-19-related travel changes in the longitudinal data and provide a snapshot of participants’ responses to the pandemic.

Launching Small-Scale Panel Surveys to Quickly Assess COVID-19 Impacts

Some agencies are in the planning stages of launching short, rapid, and repeating panel surveys to understand how residents are changing all aspects of their daily routings as a result of COVID-19. This panel approach would allow agencies to compare current travel behaviors to household travel survey and other transportation survey data collected from the same residents prior to (and possibly following) the COVID-19 pandemic.

Monitoring Near-Real-Time Travel Metrics Using Passively Collected, Location-Based Service Data

Initial indications are that some agencies are beginning to use passively collected, location-based service (LBS) data (“big data”) to monitor key travel metrics in their region during the COVID-19 pandemic and—to an extent—going forward. Examples of high-level data to monitor include changes to person-miles traveled, average time residents spend at home versus other locations, and essential travel versus nonessential travel. The data are provided with only a few days of lag, which supports quick decision-making throughout the pandemic response.

Transportation and planning agencies are starting to quantify COVID-19-related impacts on travel behavior, some of which may persist after the pandemic

Much of the recent public discussion on data collection for transportation planning and modeling efforts has focused on predicting when travel patterns will “return to normal.” However, previous travel disruptions indicate that travel behaviors may not just snap back after COVID-19; instead, changes will persist.

For example, a 2017 study by Oxford economists found that 5% of London commuters affected by a two-day Tube strike in 2014 switched how they got to work each day and stuck with the new travel pattern after the strike. The authors posited that, after changing routes for the days of disruption, this cohort of commuters had found (and adopted) more desirable travel options that they had not previously tried.

Similarly, once the number of cases of COVID-19 peak and begin to subside in select regions, some percentage of people working from home, modifying their shopping behaviors, or finding new recreational activities may also permanently adopt all or part of their new travel routines or behaviors. It is also too early to fully understand the impact of painful, large-scale unemployment on travel behavior.

Given these potential outcomes, the current COVID-19-related travel behavior changes could upend long-held transportation planning assumptions, including standard trip rates, mode choices, and vehicle miles traveled. These inbuilt assumptions support much of the present modeling and planning decisions made by metropolitan planning organizations and state departments of transportation. Additionally, these important metrics may take time to stabilize to a new equilibrium; in some cases, entirely new metrics may need to be developed.

While it is still early to fully quantify or understand the lasting impacts of COVID-19, transportation and planning agencies are embracing, both out of desire and necessity, the need to quickly adapt. The near-term adjustment strategy includes options like quick panel surveys and rapid LBS data metrics. These agency-led efforts will help ensure the new normal—rather than pre-COVID-19—travel patterns are informing future planning efforts, thereby preserving the accuracy and utility of travel forecasts.


RSG remains committed to compiling timely travel behavior information from our ongoing studies, our travel data feeds, and from other public sources to make it available to decision makers. For more information on our ongoing operations and support of our clients through COVID-19, please see the recent note from our CEO, Stephen Lawe.

Orian Welling

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