As the debate surrounding coronavirus lockdowns intensifies in the United States, local and state governments face complex calculations about how to manage restrictions. StreetLight Data has introduced a new mobility data tool that it believes can help policymakers better monitor compliance and make more informed adjustments as the situation evolves.
This new service is called VMT Monitor (vehicle miles traveled). The tool uses anonymized data pulled from smartphones and other devices with GPS to generate a map that can provide county-level information about distance and frequency of trips on a daily basis.
The role that data can play in this present crisis has become a central question as the pandemic has shut down daily life around the globe. From the debate around contact tracing apps to the rise of artificial intelligence that offers greater insight into the virus, vast and pervasive connectivity generates a wealth of information that would seem to offer tantalizing opportunities for innovative solutions.
In the case of StreetLight, the company hopes that at the very least it can contribute by providing a window into how local residents may or may not be complying with stay-at-home rules.
“We’re not epidemiologists,” said Laura Schewel, CEO and cofounder of StreetLight. “We don’t know what is actually an indicator of people being safe or not safe. But we do know about transportation. And we know that a lot of our communities need metrics where they can compare before and after. Vehicle miles traveled is the most classic metric of transportation.”
Data for smarter cities
Founded in 2012, StreetLight is part of a broader global movement that is using new digital tools to gain greater insight into how people move and the way transportation functions. The company has raised a total of $29 million in venture capital, including a $10 million round in 2018.
The company’s core platform aggregates trillions of GPS and cellular data points from cell phones, smart city sensors, internet of things deployments, and scooter and bike sharing services. The goal is to provide greater insight for urban planners by letting them generate more accurate models.
But in thinking how the company could make an impact on the current crisis, a team very quickly pulled together a free version of that platform that can be accessed by anyone online. That involved working with various data partners to obtain more frequent updates, develop efficient ways to crunch all the data to calculate VMT, and then find a way to validate the results.
In the end, StreetLight was able to create a system that is updated daily with information for all 3,100 U.S. counties.
“That will give enough granularity,” Schewel said. “Because there’s certainly not a national trend. There are not even statewide consistent trends. Behavior is changing in really different ways depending on the context of the place. We wanted to provide something that was immediately actionable.”
At a high level, the VMT confirms the trends one would generally expect: Traffic has fallen sharply in every metropolitan area and state since coronavirus lockdowns began taking effect in March. Nationwide, this figure is roughly two-thirds. But in some places, it’s as much as 90% while in others it’s as little as 30%. Schewel said the latter tends to be rural areas where things like dairy processing or farming have continued to operate to keep the food supply chain moving.
“When we’ve zoomed into counties, it’s very clear that a lot of the movement is around really essential services,” Schewel said. “And it’s also clear that in rural areas, there’s no Instacart, there’s no delivery. So it also points to the fundamentally different reliance on shopping that is different than the offerings that urban areas have.”
With a couple of clicks, I could see that in my home county of Alameda, California, the VMT for April 26 (a Friday) was 7.43 million miles, about 84% below the baseline daily average in January. On March 6 (a Friday), the VMT for Alameda County was 40.3 million miles.
As part of the development and promotion of the service, StreetLight generated data around Easter Sunday to see whether the holiday impacted the way people respected the lockdown restrictions.
One of the surprises was that April 12, Easter Sunday, turned out to be one of the lowest VMT days of the year in general. While people tend to travel for Thanksgiving, Easter was more of a stay-at-home event even pre-pandemic. So the 2.4 billion VMT recorded that day was the lowest of the pandemic period, Schewel said.
On the other hand, 715 counties did see Easter increases in VMT compared to the previous Sunday. Of those, 57 saw increases of more than 50% on Easter compared to the previous Sunday.
Those increases occurred primarily in non-urban and low-population counties in five states: California, Oregon, Texas, Washington, and Utah. Consequently, Texas overall experienced an 8.6% increase while Washington saw a bump of 8.2%.
Of course, the trick here is the same as with all data: How do we know what these numbers are telling us?
“We don’t know if that’s just happenstance, like maybe people did more grocery shopping in the rural counties on that day,” Schewel said. “Or were they just not able to take it anymore and wanted to go see some family? We don’t know. But the bigger story is that the patterns are just not the same everywhere. Granular data is going to be really important for managing the return after things begin to open up.”
Beyond compliance monitoring, StreetLight believes the VMT data could help cities recalibrate their budgets.
Gas and sales taxes have traditionally been seen as a leading indicator of economic activity and a critical tool for planning and generating budget estimates. Those tax revenues have fallen drastically during the pandemic, plunging many governments into crisis and forcing them to ask for federal assistance.
However, the drop in driving is also going to mean less wear and tear on roads, which could allow governments to shift maintenance needs to save money.
On the other hand, perhaps governments that have the means will see this moment as an opportunity to more efficiently perform road maintenance because closing lanes will have less impact on drivers, Schewel said. Indeed, last month Florida and California officials announced they would fast-track some highway construction projects.
“Using either this VMT monitor or other types of our data, governments can figure out where to send crews to do work on roads that are not affiliated with a major hospital or something really important that we don’t want construction in the way,” she said. “There’s a lot of ways that they’re trying to prepare and to mitigate the damage to the economy.”
Schewel said she’s hoping to see more such activity post-lockdown to help jump-start the economy: “In the 2008 recession, transportation expenditures went up because all government levels used transportation projects to create economic activity and lots of good jobs. I hope they see the wisdom of doing that again. And it’s not like our infrastructure is in good shape.”
Over the longer term, Schewel is hopeful that mobility data gathered during the lockdowns will also provide some insights as to how to make more sweeping changes to transportation and urban planning.
“How can we use data about what’s happened in this extraordinarily bizarre time?” Schewel said. “Can we come back better than we were before? Can we come back with better located bike and pedestrian facilities? Can we come back with less congestion? For instance, I don’t want to work from home every day, but StreetLight has always had a one-day-a-week work from home policy because we believe in reducing driving. What if more companies could have that? Just a few percentages of vehicles off the road can have extraordinary benefits for congestion.”