Busy Highway

As states continue reopening efforts, a plethora of data shows Americans are back on the road in vast numbers, approaching levels not seen in nearly a year before world health officials declared a global pandemic.

Numerous data-points tell a similar story. The driving request index for Apple Maps demonstrated 13% growth in fourth quarter 2020. And with more businesses restarting on-site operations, Americans are also returning to the office. According to Department of Labor statistics, only 23% of employed persons worked from home in September. Looking forward, 28% of currently employed persons anticipate they will work from home in the coming months.

Meanwhile, a return to in-person K-12 school instruction has parents back on the road. As of Feb. 9, 2021, nearly two-thirds (65%) of U.S. K-12 students are currently attending at least two to three days of in-person school instruction, per Burbio's K-12 School Opening Tracker.

In addition, the pandemic accelerated the shift to personal vehicles and away from public transportation and ride sharing services. More than two thirds (67%) have increased their reliance on, or their need for, a personal vehicle and 62% of workers swapped public transportation for their car. In addition, 57% of people who purchased a car in the first half of 2020 said it was due to COVID-19.

This parallels a significant decline in the number of Americans using public transportation. As of January 2021, public transportation requests remain at roughly half of their pre-COVID levels, according to the Apple Maps Driving & Transit Request Index.

Rideshare services have also faced significant declines. Gross rideshare bookings for Uber fell 50% year-over-year from fourth quarter 2019 to fourth quarter 2020, while Lyft experienced a 46% decline during the same timeframe, according to quarterly earnings reports released by these companies in February 2021.

As these trends play out, some Americans have developed a new mindset about their cars, treating them as an extension of “home,” using them as a way to cope during COVID restrictions. According to an August 2020 TrueCar survey, nearly three in four (73%) said they have used their vehicle as a haven for private “me time,” 37% said they have used their car as a place to take business or personal phone calls and 32% said they have turned their driver’s seat into a makeshift office space.

“Our cars are becoming more important than ever,” iHeartMedia Chief Marketing Officer Gayle Troberman said during an “On The Road Again” webinar last week, where these and other mobility trends were presented to advertisers and agencies. “The car is back in vogue as people are a little scared of public transportation, as people are travelling less in the air than we all used to,” Troberman said. “We’re seeing that the car is becoming the safe place, the car is becoming a really critically important part of the family. All of a sudden, cars are becoming a crucial part of the American zeitgeist.”

As vaccinations become more widely distributed and American lifestyles begin to return to some semblance of normalcy, personal vehicles are likely to remain a preferred mode of travel – even after restrictions end. According to a University of Chicago study, almost nine in ten Americans (87%) believe travel by personal vehicles is low risk, and 43% of adults say they will travel less by airplane, even after COVID-19 is no longer a threat.

Data also shows national-level traffic is recovering. As of Jan. 11, 2021, miles travelled nationally were up 51% from the national low in April 2020, according to Traffic Karma Mobility Trends. Cambridge Mobile Telematics Senior Data Scientist Lisa Pinals said the volume of traffic declined by about half, in both kilometers per day and trips per day, in mid-April.

“We were surprised at how quickly the levels rebounded,” said Dennis Frawley VP of Global Customer Success at Cambridge Mobile Telematics. “We’re now knocking on the door of 90% of where it was pre-COVID in terms of the number of drivers that are driving on any given day. The patterns might have shifted slightly but it was pretty clear that Americans were not going to be separated from their vehicles for very long and have rebounded pretty aggressively.”