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To Grandmother’s House We Don’t Go: Travel Mileage in the COVID-19 Era


Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Driving or flying to grandmother’s house for the holidays? Fewer Americans are likely to this year as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urges people to avoid traveling because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Thanksgiving is traditionally one of the busiest times of the year for travel. But the pandemic has thrown wrenches in many people’s holiday travel plans.

Highway Travel Patterns Shifted in 2020

The graph above, from the St. Louis Fed’s online economic database FRED, displays nonseasonally adjusted data from the U.S. Federal Highway Administration on vehicle miles traveled in the last five years. Until this year, the statistics showed an annual peak during the summer and a dip in driving early in the new year. The peak in 2019 was in July, at 296 billion miles of driving, and the lowest point last year was in February, with just 227 billion miles of vehicle travel.

But those stats, like so much else, look a lot different in 2020. The lowest number of vehicle travel miles was recorded in April, when many stay-at-home orders were in effect in efforts to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. The number dropped that month to 168 billion miles, down 40% from April 2019.

While highway travel has rebounded quite a bit, as illustrated above, the peak in July 2020 still was down more than 30 billion miles from a year earlier, at 262 billion miles.

Consumers Have Been Keeping Their Feet on the Ground

The CDC also warns that air travel can increase the risk of getting COVID-19, and consumers seem to have taken the warning to heart.  

As of August, the most recent month for which data are available, air travel hadn’t seen the rebound that highway travel has, according to nonseasonally adjusted statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics reflected in the FRED graph above.

In April, air revenue passenger miles, the number of miles traveled by paying passengers, plunged 96% from a year earlier, to 3 billion miles. They remained low in August at 24 billion miles, down 76% from a year earlier.

Budget Concerns also May Suppress Travel

The CDC has not been shy with other travel guidelines during the pandemic.

“Travel may increase your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19,” the agency said in a list of recommendations updated Nov. 19. “Postponing travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others this year.”

So, far fewer people and families will be hitting the highways to visit grandmother’s house this Thanksgiving. The St. Louis metropolitan area, like many parts of the country, is under restrictions, with residents urged to stay at home and limit interactions–even on the big upcoming holidays.

In addition to health concerns, high unemployment will likely lead to lighter holiday travel on roads and in airports, according to a Nov. 12 report from AAA. In fact, the travel organization anticipates at least a 10% drop in the number of people traveling for Thanksgiving from last year, the largest one-year decrease since 2008, which was during the Great Recession.

And those who do plan holiday road trips will keep them low key, according to AAA: They’re likely to drive shorter distances and reduce the number of days they are away from home.

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