Don’t Take the A Train

By in
Don’t Take the A Train

We’ll do our usual TomTom GPS traffic congestion analysis in a moment, but today we wanted to expand our use of crowdsourced travel data by looking at Apple’s Mobility Trends Report. Released in mid-April, we’ve been tracking it to see how much it fits with our own first-hand knowledge of New York traffic patterns. It works well, and with several weeks of additional data since launch the Apple data (reroute requests from the Apple Maps app as a proxy for usage and congestion) gives some additional insight into a post-COVID back-to-work world.

Here is the Apple data for New York City from mid-January through this weekend:

What we think it shows:

  • While much of New York has yet to return to work, there has been a marked substitution out of mass transit and into cars and walking. Driving is actually almost back to normal pre-COVID baseline levels (albeit at a January – February seasonal low).
  • With NY’s Phase 1 restart a week away, mass transit will have to be part of how people get to work. Half of New Yorker’s don’t even own a personal vehicle, and even with 90,000 ride sharing vehicles not everyone can commute by car.

The bottom line is that while most American cities have very little mass transit, we’ll expect to see those that do (NYC, Boston, Washington, San Francisco, Chicago, primarily) showing much larger increases in traffic congestion as restarts gather steam. In NYC, at least, this could be a bottleneck to a productive reopening.

Turning now to our usual TomTom GPS traffic congestion data, we will need to focus this week on evaluating economic restarts across Europe. As we looked at the data for everywhere from Houston to New York to Chicago this Sunday evening, it was clear that traffic congestion is higher than usual as protests occur in those and other cities.

All is not lost, though, because the congestion data from many European cities looks quite promising and offers a window into how the US might fare as cities here hit full-stride restarts in the coming weeks.

First, here is Berlin (solid red line is the last week, dotted red line is the week before, dotted blue line is the 2019 average by day and hour):

Next, here is Paris:

And finally, Milan:

Since all three cities have been largely/completely open (with safeguards) for +14 days, one can see them as templates for how reopenings will go in the US over the weeks ahead:

  • Berlin is clearly the success story. Early action limited COVID’s initial spread and widespread testing gives the population some confidence that flare-ups will be contained and small.

    As a result, traffic here isn’t just back to normal – it’s above normal as of last Friday.
  • Paris was hit much harder than Berlin. Its lockdown was longer and more aggressive and getting back to something like normal has taken longer.

    As a result, Parisian traffic is not yet back to normal, but it’s getting there pretty quickly. This weekend’s congestion – as close to normal as anything we’ve seen in months – shows that local discretionary trips such as shopping or dining out are on the increase, a positive sign.
  • Milan is to Europe what New York is to the US when it comes to COVID’s impact on the local population.

    You can see from that last chart that traffic congestion in Milan is not increasing at the same pace as Paris or Berlin. Of special note: Sunday evening mealtime, typically involving a trip to visit with extended family, is still not seeing much of a surge in traffic. Given everything Milan has endured this year, that’s totally understandable.

Takeaway: we expect that we’ll see similar disparities in US cities in the coming weeks, and it means that cities less affected by COVID-19 will have to be the initial engines of American economic growth.


Apple Mobility Data: