COVID-19 Travel Patterns: Researchers examine movements of NJans and how they changed during pandemic

At the height of the coronavirus shutdown in the spring, travel to more than 150,000 points of interest throughout New Jersey, including retail, health care, food stores and other essential and non-essential establishments decreased up to 80 percent compared to the first week of March when the state was still opened, according to a Rutgers report.

Using anonymous data from mobile devices as well as building footprints, researchers examined how New Jerseyans’ travel patterns changed from March 1, 2020, to May 17, 2020. That period includes the three weeks before the March 21 shutdown, followed by the eight weeks post-March 21, which had the maximum restrictions on individuals and businesses.

“Transportation in New Jersey keeps the state’s economic engine running,” said study author Vonu Thakuriah, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy and director of the recently established Rutgers Urban and Civic Informatics Lab. “Localized efforts that emphasize strategies to address the effects of travel disruptions are needed for an economically sound and socially-just recovery. A starting point to a recovery requires a multi-faceted analysis of how New Jersey residents traveled during this time.”

According to the report, more store closures in high COVID-19 areas, together with reduced public transportation services, may have played a role in fewer food shopping trips in high poverty areas, potentially leading to hardship in getting food.

The findings shed light on travel by COVID-19 rates, movements by type of establishment, travel changes by location and travel patterns and disparities. Among them:

  • The number of visits to supermarkets, food, alcohol, and convenience stores increased in almost all counties in the second week of March. Visits were highest in Morris, Monmouth, Sussex and Warren Counties.
  • After a gradual decline mid-March, travel dropped sharply to the lowest levels starting the week of March 22. Reduction in travel varied, with the greatest declines in the northern and central counties.
  • When residents traveled farther to buy food, alcohol and related items, they also spent more time in those facilities, likely because they had to wait in line to enter the store and because they shopped for larger quantities. 
  • Trips to food and grocery stores declined the most in Atlantic, Bergen, Passaic, Mercer and Somerset Counties after the second week of March, implying that many people were well stocked or used delivery services.
  • People shopping for food in lower income areas with few COVID-19 cases made more trips to the grocery store. Not having a car or the ability to pay for many groceries may have played a role in more frequent trips.
  • Generally speaking, the longer people traveled to a location, the less time they spent at that location, suggesting an effort to reduce their total out-of-home time. 

“Even under normal circumstances, there are tremendous geographic differences in economic, social and health outcomes in New Jersey,” said Thakuriah. “These differences translated to disparate impacts on the amount, distance and time spent in travel during the shutdown. We must identify the effects, both positive and negative, of travel changes on the well-being of residents and business owners to determine an overall strategy and a range of solutions necessary at the local level for recovery and future shutdowns.”

The full report can be found here.

*This article originally appeared on Rutgers Today, July 15, 2020