Following California’s statewide COVID-19 stay-at-home order, people are traveling much less across the Sacramento and Stockton regions. And while travel has started to rise again, it’s still far from normal.
A CapRadio analysis of 11 counties in the area found that travel dropped in March as coronavirus began to take hold and counties and the state began restricting travel.
These counties all saw major dives in how much people were traveling in the days following Gov. Gavin Newsom’s March 19 order for all residents to stay at home unless absolutely essential. That ranged from Sutter County, which saw a 52.9% drop on the first Friday after the stay at home order, to Nevada County, which had a 74% drop.
“Trips for commuting, obviously, as well as for retail and shopping seem to have dropped off much more than trips for other purposes,” said Austin Brown, Executive Director of the UC Davis Policy Institute for Energy, Environment, and the Economy. “We're really seeing the effect you might expect to have, which is basically, people are not making those trips.”
The data, provided by San Francisco transportation analytics company Streetlight Data, includes road travel in motorized vehicles, as well as some pedestrian, bicycle and transit travel. They collect this data using GPS in people’s cars, phones and more to see how many miles people are traveling. Each county’s data includes miles people travelled on trips that started in that county.
Traffic Still Down, Despite Lifting Restrictions
But even as California continues to allow counties to loosen restrictions, travel has not returned to its pre-COVID-19 level. In almost all of the counties CapRadio analyzed, travel was still down substantially from counties’ January average as of June 7.
Plumas County, a rural area of Northern California, is an exception.
Following Memorial Day weekend, Plumas County has seen vehicle travel that exceeds or is just less than its January average. But even with current restrictions on travel, Plumas County COVID-19 spokesperson Lori Beatley said that it’s an expected rise as the county enters its normal high season for recreational visitors.
“Since the weather has turned nice, we’ve seen a lot more activity, not just by residents, but also by people coming into Plumas County,” Beatley said.
This increase in people visiting Plumas County to fish, bike and participate in other outdoor activities has led the county to require people to wear face coverings while in public.
In addition to the draw for recreational visitors to areas like Plumas County, there’s also a natural difference between how much residents of rural counties need to travel compared to residents of urban counties, according to Streetlight Data CEO Laura Schewel. Without grocery stores close by their homes or access to grocery delivery services like Instacart, residents of rural areas may have to drive further for essential activities like shopping for food or going to work.
“Nobody’s doing anything wrong,” Schewel said. “They’re not cheating. It just is the nature of the transportation system.”
What Traveling Less Means
Even as the weather warms up and people start to move around more, experts are looking at the impacts of this decrease in travel in people’s lives, the environment and government budgets.
The decrease in people traveling creates a unique set of circumstances, both good and bad.
On one hand, Brown said, the “really, really enormous” decrease in travel has led to a decrease in vehicle emissions. While he pointed out that a strict restriction of travel like this may not be the most realistic way to fight climate change, he said that this shows that reducing emissions is possible.
“The lesson I think we want to take away is that emissions reductions are possible,” he said. “We can have cleaner air.”
Another impact of this reduced travel has been on how much people are paying for auto insurance.
Following the stay-at-home order, California State Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara ordered insurance companies to reduce insurance premiums as drivers were travelling fewer miles, and therefore assuming less risk on the road.
But a decrease in ground transportation could also lead to a decrease in revenue for transportation agencies and state and local governments, according to Schewel. As people drive less, she says, revenues from sales taxes, gas taxes and usage fees such as bridge tolls will go down as well.
“For agencies, they have this anxiety about funding for the next fiscal year,” Schewel said. “But when the roads are not driven on as much, we might actually be able to put off some regularly scheduled repairs, so that might mitigate it a tiny bit.”
The California Department of Transportation is keeping an eye on any potential impacts to maintenance and construction projects going forward in light of revenue projections, but expects all ongoing projects to continue without delay or stoppage, according to a department spokesperson.
As agencies and people alike consider how this could impact them going forward, there’s still some uncertainty about what the timeline for getting back to normal life looks like. Brown expects that California’s recovery may be slower than other places.
“We’re really looking at trying to restrict certain kinds of nonessential travel for quite some time,” Brown said. “So we’d expect that the growth of travel would be slower for at least a while.”
And with a major societal change like the ones brought on by COVID-19, Brown said there’s even a possibility that our habits could be changed for good.
“This could just change the way people travel in the long term,” he said. “We could actually never go back to that growth in travel year over year that we've been seeing for a very long time.”
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