Talking Michigan Transportation

Has the pandemic forever changed our walking habits?

November 21, 2023 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 5 Episode 164
Talking Michigan Transportation
Has the pandemic forever changed our walking habits?
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Experts are trying to parse data that shows a dramatic decline in the number of trips Americans take on foot. Axios summarized findings from Streetlight Data, including a 36 percent drop in average daily walking trips in the contiguous U.S. between 2019 and 2022. 

On this week’s edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, Emily Adler, director of content at Streetlight, explains the methodology for collecting the information. StreetLight measures travel behavior based on anonymized data from mobile devices, vehicle GPS systems and more.

Key points:

  • "In every metro and state that StreetLight analyzed, walking trips declined over the three-year period by at least 20 percent," per the report.
  • The rate of decline slowed from -16 percent between 2019 and 2020 and -19 percent between 2020 and 2021 to -6 percent between 2021 and 2022. But that's still a significant overall drop, from about 120 million trips in 2019 to fewer than 80 million in 2022.

Other theories about the decline suggest the rise in online deliveries is a factor, as people use Amazon and other services for deliveries of goods and food.

During and coming out of the pandemic, walking as part of a commute declined as more people work remotely. Even people walking their “pandemic pups” don’t really move the numbers compared to those who commuted by foot previously.

Jeff Cranson:

Hello, welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson. Experts are trying to parse some data that shows a dramatic decline in the number of trips Americans are taking on foot. Axios and some other news outlets reported on some findings from Streetlight Data, which is a firm that tracks these things, and today I'm going to talk to someone who is the director of content there and will explain the methodology they use and basically how they come up with the numbers that they do and talk about these trends with people walking less, why that's troubling and how it relates to the pandemic and how lots of habits have changed since then. Once again, I'm with Emily Adler of Streetlight Data and they have a report just last week, as a matter of fact, that shows that we're not walking as much as a nation or, as Axios put it, putting one foot in front of the other, and that follows a report that they did the previous month on cycling and trends there and people taking to the streets. You know if they can pedal and I think maybe part of that is because of the growing popularity of e-bikes. But, Emily, talk about your methodology first. How do you figure out who's walking and where?

Emily Adler:

Yeah, so at a high level, we use location-based services, data anonymized and then, as well as some survey data, census data real world counters out that cities and localities have put out and we want to run it through our root science engine to get an overarching picture of what's going on in each of the census tracks. As far as walking and biking and there's a lot more detail to how that all works, we have a white paper. If folks want to take a look, sort of like underscoring our methodology and validation, we have one for walking and one for biking, as well as mode share, so you can take a look at that, but at a high level. This is big data accrued through a lot of different sources, anonymized and then validated rigorously against permanent counters.

Jeff Cranson:

So I guess maybe I should have started with this. You're a San Francisco-based organization. Why do you guys do what you do?

Emily Adler:

That's a great question. So I mean, the fundamental premise of Streetlight is data for better transportation decisions. So you're at a DOT. I'm sure you're very familiar with the idea that there are gaps in sort of how transportation data has traditionally been collected. We can't put a tube out on every road for all time for all modes, let alone for all modes, and so when our CEO, laura, founded the company, the idea was, if we can use big data to rigorously understand transportation patterns at a much wider scope level geographically and temporarily, as well as across modes we can give transportation agencies much better information for how they make those transportation decisions. And we can also and this, I think, is really comes. This is the sort of the hopefully what people get out of the walking and biking report. Historically, walking and biking data is so hard to come by, and so that results in pedestrians and bikers sort of not being sometimes included in transportation decisions, and so that's really the underlying premise of Streetlight, yeah that makes a lot of sense.

Jeff Cranson:

So talk about the pedestrian report and, I guess, give me the summary, the high level of conclusions from the data.

Emily Adler:

Yeah. So, we saw this pretty dramatic, just quite significant decline in walking activity, and we saw that at the national level by about 36% over the course of three years 2019 through 2022. And then, even as we dug into specific metros, the top 100 metros by population and all the continuous the continental US, we saw declines across all of those. So, the declines sort of ranged I think the smallest was around negative 20, 23% and the largest was closer to negative 50% but the decline was universal. And the other thing that we saw that I think was really interesting is that and as we look at places that sort of declined the least or places where we're starting to see a little bit more of a bounce back in between 2021 through 2022. There's a concentration in warmer weather areas, places with better weather, and I think this kind of speaks to what's happening here. Is that the positive is that what's going on is that remote work is at least part of the big part of the potential cause of this slowdown and walking, of this decline and walking. And so, walking, if it's no longer as much of a mode of utility right, it's not how we get to work, a place we have to be then it's more of a source of recreation, which is great, for you know, it's good for walking to be part of recreation, right, we want people to be healthier and walking. But you know, I think when we think about like sort of climate and safety and equity and all these other things, pulling walking down from the mix has sort of negative consequences. But yeah, so I think that yeah, sorry, go ahead.

Jeff Cranson:

No, no, I was just going to say I'm surprised at that remote work. I can see why it's made a difference in terms of walking as part of your commute, but you'd also think that a lot of people would just want to get out and take that break and go for a walk during the day. And then there's all the people that got pandemic puppies.

Emily Adler:

I was going to say and pandemic, don't forget about the pandemic puppies. But I think that you know, again, like with this idea of utility versus recreation, I don't think we generally we engage in things for recreation with quite the same commitment or consistency, let's say as something that we have to do.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, that makes sense. That's not part of your regimen. You just don't do it right, exactly.

Emily Adler:

Yeah, so you know, if every day I plan to take an afternoon walk, maybe I take that afternoon walk two to three times a day.

Jeff Cranson:

Can you talk about what you saw in terms of different cities across the country? And you know who I mean New York, no surprise rates highest, because you almost can't live in most of the boroughs, especially Manhattan, without planning to walk, even if you take the subway every day. There's going to be walking involved, so absolutely.

Emily Adler:

You know we looked specifically at metros. So, it's the city. It's not just the city proper, it's the, it's also the underlying suburbs. So, I think we will, in the future, take a look at suburbs versus downtowns to see you know, if we, if we find some differences there in terms of where driving has declined versus where things are coming back. But you know t he geographic distribution is interesting. It's like you know it's New York. A lot of places had significant declines or biggest cities had significant declines. L. A. also declined New York, they but L. A., for example, warm weather location, did see the biggest bounce back in 2021 to 2022. The Midwest and some of the South, I would say, saw some of the bigger declines but, like the South, with this warm weather phenomenon, you know, like some places in Florida actually saw smaller declines than we saw in New York, for example, I think our biking data, I think a little bit more closely tracks the walkable, extra super walkable place, high transit use, like you know, X happened, whereas here there's also this weather element to what's going on.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, as I read the data, we think it would be measured to and maybe this did show up in your biking data and not as much, although Michigan's been very aggressive about trails and building trails, you know, converting rail to trails like a lot of states, but especially in northern Michigan, where a lot of tourists are attracted already and it's beautiful and people like to be out in the woods, and I was hopeful that that was going to lead to, you know, certainly more cycling, but also just walking trips and the trails I'm on, even when I'm riding, I see a lot of people walking.

Emily Adler:

So, Michigan did see an increase in biking, for sure, and I think the thing about biking is that biking just has a much smaller base to draw from. So, you know, a lot of people started biking for the first time during the pandemic and it's very cool that has held. So, what we found is that biking momentum didn't fall off right. So, although the growth slowed, we didn't see a decline after that initial bump. I think, with walking, let you know this again. This goes back to this idea of recreation versus utility. Walking is a part of everyone's life already, right? So, it's just a matter of you know how much did the recreation pull offset? The like utility decline, I think. And I think in that case it's, you know, the loss of utility kind of wins out.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, one thing that stuck out at me was that the bullet points in the Axios story about the report pointed out that Portland, Oregon, Boise, Idaho and Ogden, Utah, are tied for last place at just 220 trips per thousand people. I think of Portland as a new urbanist paradise. You know there's a lot of advocacies for walkable communities and those things. So, I mean, and you live in a walkable area.

Emily Adler:

They do, yeah, and I think that again we're looking at growth numbers right if we're talking about Portland, for example, like they do rank pretty high for biking activity per capita even still, even though their biking activity actually declined over the course of those three years. So, it's really the function. Growth is largely a function of where you started.

Jeff Cranson:

Right sure.

Emily Adler:

And so that's why the per capita data can be really helpful for really putting in context of like, okay, how big is this mode in this city really?

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, so if you guys talk about it in terms of active transportation, which I think is a really good term, could you talk about what that means?

Emily Adler:

Sure, yeah, so we think of walking and biking as sort of making up the majority of the active transportation mix. We do include e-biking and scooters in that. In that mix we break out walking and biking separately. But the reason that we sort of, when we think about mode share, we want to be able to see those pulled out from vehicles because obviously active transportation it's a very different kind of transportation. It's economical, it doesn't produce any emissions, or minimal emissions if we're talking about e-bikes, it has, you know, positive public health benefits and it also, like we've said, does not get measured nearly to the degree that vehicle activity gets measured. So that's why we pull active transportation out. We have walking and biking numbers separately because of course the needs of walkers and bikers are different. But in the end, like a lot of times, the infrastructure that supports biking also supports walking and also makes streets safer. So I think it's useful to have those to be able to look at them together and to look at how that mix is shifting together, as well as pull them apart for specific safety and other planning use cases.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, I just I think it's most disappointing because we know where the United States has been in terms of, you know, international rankings for obesity and other related health problems for decades, if not centuries.

Emily Adler:

Yeah, the public health element of it is disconcerting for sure, yeah.

Jeff Cranson:

And is that part of what drives you and your colleagues in this effort?

Emily Adler:

I think you know a lot of folks at Streetlight have backgrounds in transportation themselves and are really interested in sort of bringing the you know, most cutting edge, most sort of comprehensive data to transportation agencies to help them make these sort of more whole, like we think about it as more holistic so, and I think that those holistic decisions tend to benefit those big thematic positive changes, right, public health, climate safety, et cetera. All sort of seems to work together.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, that's really interesting. You know it's also part of you talked about downtown recovery and downtowns where commercial real estate is not bounced back the way that certainly the people who are involved in commercial real estate hoped it would., And I mean, do you have any, I mean not that you guys traffic in crystal balls, but do you have any reason to be more optimistic about the future and where things are going?

Emily Adler:

Well, we don't traffic in crystal balls to your point, but you know I did. We did, in the report, highlight sort of the numbers in the most recent full year because there were some signs of positive bounce back there. We did see some places start to see increases again in walking activity. I also think, like the hope is that like sort of shining this light and providing this data gives localities what they need to sort of make these investments to draw these numbers back up. And in addition, you know we of course also have this build back better bill and various infrastructure investments that are ongoing. If those funds can be, can be sort of paired with the you know information on where is this happening, where is it not happening. What do we need to do to pull this in the other direction in the case of walking or support biking? In the case of biking, you know we are at a historic moment in terms of the funds available for infrastructure and those things are all to the good.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, and we've got an administration in Washington and a Secretary of Transportation and Pete Buttigieg, who's very committed to these kinds of things and connecting communities.

Emily Adler:

Yeah, absolutely, and I think we see a lot of those grants really supporting things like safety and public health and reconnecting to communities, to your point, multimodal planning, etc.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, so okay, maybe there's some seeds of hope there. I guess I thought by now, going back to President Kennedy and a national focus on fitness and that was kind of mocked, but the 50- mile hike thing that we'd be further along now.

Emily Adler:

I guess it's all part of sort of a holistic vision of a place, right, so it's like goes to land use and transit and making sure that places are built in a way that's walkable, so that people have reason to choose to walk over getting in their car.

Jeff Cranson:

Please stay tuned. We'll be back with more Talking Michigan Transportation right after this.

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Jeff Cranson:

What are you guys looking at next? You've done, now that you've done bicycling and walking.

Emily Adler:

So, I think we will in the next month or two, take a closer look at sort of look at a few metros and maybe look at what are the trends between suburban areas versus downtown in terms of walking and biking. That's something I think we really want to understand better. Also looking at how VMT we do measure vehicles miles traveled as well. So, we'll be looking at what's happening on the ground in terms of changes in vehicles miles traveled. We're always sort of using our data to try to highlight new and interesting and trends that could benefit people's planning and sort of thinking about how infrastructure is developing. Again, our clients are running all kinds of analyses all the time for very specific use cases, but in our research and our content we're sort of trying to highlight those big national trends that can kind of shine a light more broadly.

Jeff Cranson:

Does your data also pick up on the speeds that people are traveling?

Emily Adler:

We do. We have, yeah, our speed data, we published a few months ago something called our safe speed index, where we actually took our pedestrian data to identify roadways that have high pedestrian exposure and then looked at those, looked at the distribution of speeds on those roadways, to understand sort of a ranking of cities by who has the safest speeds for pedestrians. So that was a really interesting analysis and we focused there not on speed limit but on what are the actual speeds that cars are going and what kind of risk does it pose to pedestrians. Sorry, no, you finish up. Oh, I was just getting your prior question. I realized you were asking you know what else we're working on. The other thing I'm focused on right now is greenhouse. We have done some work on greenhouse gas emissions. So we're going to be highlighting that in an upcoming presentation sort of how you can use our data to measure greenhouse gas emissions more effectively from transportation. So that's something we're really excited about.

Jeff Cranson:

Good, I'm very interested in that too. Yeah, what I was going to say is that it seems like when you talk about cities and the speeds in the cities, I mean most of what I've delved into with our state police here, beginning with the pandemic and you know, fewer cars on the road and speeds were crazy and a lot of people quit wearing seatbelts and there was just a lot of reckless behavior. Yeah, and even though there weren't as many people driving, there were more serious crashes and more people being killed, and it only stands to reason that even in cities that have been aggressive about, you know, pinch points and traffic calming devices, that if people are going faster and taking more chances, that you know everybody's at risk.

Emily Adler:

Yeah, absolutely. I think you know, I think it's pretty clear from lots of different data that's out there that speed is one of the biggest risk factors for anyone in a car and anyone outside of a car. So that's definitely that is data that is very important in our data mix and we highlighted a lot in our safety planning tools because it is such a critical piece of the safety mix.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah well, I'm really interested in your work, so thank you for taking time to talk about it for sure.

Emily Adler:

Thanks for reaching out. It was great to talk with you.

Jeff Cranson:

I'd like to thank you once more for tuning in to Talking Michigan Transportation. You can find show notes and more on Apple podcasts or Buzzsprout. I also want to acknowledge the talented people who help make this a reality each week, starting with Randy Debler, who skillfully edits the audio, Jesse Ball, who proofs the content, Courtney Bates, who posts the podcast of various platforms, and Jacke Salinas, who transcribes the audio to make it accessible to all.

Decline in US Walking Activity
Transportation Data and Infrastructure Investments
Speed's Impact on Road Safety