Miles Traveled Recover as Morning Commute Idles

INRIX mobility analyst shares insights with Fuels Institute’s Eichberger on Carpool Chats.

August 30, 2021

Los Angeles Traffic on Highways

By: Kim Stewart

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—COVID-19 has caused unprecedented disruption to all aspects of our lives, including daily travel habits. The increase in flexible work arrangements has upended short and long transportation trends. To gain a better understanding of the pandemic’s impact on miles-driven, travel times and what to expect moving forward, the Fuels Institute invited Bob Pishue, transportation analyst at INRIX, to Carpool Chats.

In an interview with John Eichberger, executive director of the Fuels Institute, Pishue shared highlights from the INRIX 2020 Global Traffic Scorecard, a tool that provides valuable mobility insights across modes of travel and between the world's most congested cities. The report examines both passenger miles traveled and commercial miles traveled.

“We looked at the impact of COVID-19 on travel and how that actually looked city to city, and also country to country. Unsurprisingly, things dropped pretty much far beyond levels that we saw during the Great Recession, or really since travel statistics started to be to be gathered. It was an unprecedented year, and we’re continuing to follow that up,” Pishue said.

By year-end 2020, Eichberger commented, vehicle miles traveled had nearly recovered to pre-pandemic levels, yet “nobody’s going back to the office. My takeaway was, you know what? You may not be going to the office, but it doesn't mean you’re sitting on your rump at home. You’re getting out and getting about. Is that what you saw in the data, too?”

Pishue said a misconception is that work travel makes up the majority of time on the roads, but “People are traveling for all sorts of reasons… There are billions of trips every day and not all of them are to work.”

Although there’s been a significant drop in work-related trips, vehicle miles traveled and trips are back up to pre-pandemic levels, Pishue said, thanks to off-peak travel, midday travel and weekend trips. Looking ahead, Eichberger asked Pishue to talk about any trends he’s seeing now that may have impact in 2022.

One thing Pishue noted, he said, was that while vehicle miles traveled matched or exceeded pre-pandemic levels in many areas, “Trip counts were a little bit lower,” and “that means that the average trip distance is up,” he said. “The typical trip that someone was taking was about 15% longer in terms of mileage than their pre-COVID comparison trip. Now that being said, in the last four or five months, probably in part due to vaccines and the opening up, we've actually seen trip counts come up and be at pre- COVID levels.”

Morning commute trips are still lagging, Pishue said, while midday trips and afternoon commutes are still going strong. “The morning peak is still largely absent in a lot of these metro areas,” Pishue said.

There’s evidence that the delta variant of COVID-19 is now depressing trips in some areas as people see coverage of rising cases and health officials issue warnings.

“Words have an impact, and if a news cycle is causing a change in miles traveled, that's going to have a direct economic impact on businesses,” Eichberger said. “Because if you’re not driving, you’re probably not buying much, not frequenting a local establishment.”

Watch on YouTube or listen on your favorite podcast platform to Episode 31: COVID’s Effect on Miles Traveled.

Visit the full Carpool Chats library to catch up on previous conversations with companies like Gilbarco Veeder-RootPhillips 66 and Volvo. If you're interested in participating in Carpool Chats, contact Donovan Woods at [email protected]. 

Don’t forget to register to attend the 2021 NACS Show October 5-8, at McCormick Place in Chicago and take advantage of the education sessions on fuel retailing, including the sessions EV 101: What is EV/EV Charging and Why It's Important, Inspect, Detect, Correct, & Maintain: How to Maximize Fuel Equipment Uptime and Disappearing Gallons: Cause & Effect on October 5, EV 201: How Do I Do EV? on October 6 and EV 301: The Economics of EV Charging and Trends in Biofuels and a Bridge to the Future on October 7.

Kim Stewart is editor-in-chief of NACS Magazine and editorial director of NACS. Contact her at [email protected].