Amid pandemic, Moovit tracks sharp drop in global public transportation usage

Urban transportation and transit patterns changed dramatically in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic crippled global movement. As more vaccinations are dispersed worldwide, many are curious when and if commuters and travelers will return to their past routines.

In an attempt to make sense of how people’s movement patterns have changed since the start of the pandemic, Moovit — an Israel-based Intel company known for its app that provides real-time information about public transportation — is providing a look at how people tend to commute and travel now.

Tracking public transportation ridership, Moovit has maintained a report that has been updated daily since mid-January 2020 showcasing the percentage of changed demand for public transit in cities around the world relative to typical usage before the pandemic.

In this file photo taken on July 16, 2020, a woman wearing a face mask and shield sits in a subway train during rush hour amid the coronavirus pandemic in New York City (Johannes EISELE / AFP)

In the days before the World Health Organization declared coronavirus to be a pandemic on March 11, 2020, Israel was seeing a positive, single-digit rise in demand for public transit, compared to a typical week before the outbreak began globally. When the pandemic was declared, that number dipped to below zero and continued to plummet until a record low on April 15, 2020 when demand for public transit was 92.1 percent lower that day than on a typical week prior to January 15.

Since April 15, 2020 the numbers have risen only to fall again. As the pandemic waned, the number creeped up to -1.4% on May 6, 2021, only to plunge again since, dropping as low as -27% on May 17, 2021 as escalations between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip raged, keeping people largely bunkered at home. Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire that went into effect on Friday morning, ending 11 days of fighting.

During their struggle with the coronavirus pandemic, cities like London and Boston shared similar public transportation trends: both saw transit decline significantly and are now still hovering close to a 40% decline versus pre-pandemic levels. Buenos Aires  saw a dramatic drop from nearly a 40% rise in demand just days before the WHO’s pandemic declaration to around -75% only a few weeks later. It clawed its way back up to -11% in mid-March 2021, only to tumble down to around -38% at the end of last month, following the pandemic waves.

Commuters wearing facemasks walk in an MTR underground metro station amid the coronavirus pandemic in Hong Kong on November 25, 2020. (Anthony WALLACE / AFP)

Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo and Seoul all saw their percentages start plummeting before February 2020, when virus cases were mainly documented closer to its epicenter in Wuhan, China. Since then, the numbers have bounced up and down a few times. At the end of last month, only Singapore broke the threshold and saw demand for public transit back in the positive, rising 13.5% versus pre-pandemic levels. Hong Kong is close at -1.4%. Seoul and Tokyo are different stories, however, clocking in at -46.4% and -89%, respectively. Tokyo is also expected to host the 2021 Summer Olympics.

“In late February, March of 2020, this is kind of the bottom point in most of the cities because this is really when the world went into shock and cities, or in entire countries, were in lockdown completely,” said Yovav Meydad, Moovit’s chief growth and marketing officer, in an interview with The Times of Israel.

As an app, Moovit’s data comes from the array of information offered to users, such as guidance and directions for city travel, buses, trains, micro mobility such as scooters and bikes, light rails and rideshare services like Uber. Meydad said since 2012, the app has grown to include one billion users across platforms, providing services in 3,200 cities across 112 countries. Though people can use the app for pedestrian directions, he said the vast majority use the app to ride, not walk.

Moovit’s other function is as a service to cities, municipalities and public transit agencies — organizations that power, plan and operate urban transport systems — by offering them paid solutions so they can expand innovative mobility options to their cities.

Meydad said that Moovit’s users represent a massive audience across global cities, giving the company a good sample of demand for mobility services in cities. The mobility data during the pandemic very much reflects the dates of lockdowns and case surges, he said. When people were forced to the confines of their homes, app usage went down as urban mobility came to a halt — a trend seen across the world.

“In cities and countries where the vaccination rates are going up, meaning people can go back to pretty much normal life and normal activities, we see that the ridership level in public transportation is increasing in a similar rate,” Meydad said. “We experience this in Israel, we see it in different cities in the US, in some cities in Asia, like in Singapore. So the usage levels in public transportation are growing because cities lifted their restrictions.”

In an attempt to help public transit organizations make sense of the changes in urban mobility and the consequential drop in ridership, Moovit has shared the data with its partners to help them navigate the crisis.

The Moovit app has also adjusted for new, streamlined schedules and routes designed to cut costs for transit agencies based on lack of demand, while at the same time notifying users about the changes via in-app messages. The firm has also introduced on-demand shuttles as a more cost-effective and safer alternative for users to get to their destination.

Meydad said these initiatives, launched in the later part of last year, have been rolled out in Israel, the US, Italy, Brazil and Australia.

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