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How Location Search Habits Changed During the Pandemic: Insights from 230 Billion Location Searches

by Chris Hutchinson on Sep 2, 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic led to a dramatic shift in the way in which we travelled in 2020. As travel restrictions were introduced to prevent the spread of the virus, we saw the number of cars on the road as well as public transport usage plummet.

But what impact did the pandemic have on the way in which people searched for locations? We used data from the TravelTime API to analyse the impact of the pandemic on searches by journey time in the UK.

Key findings
Where does the data come from?
Taking a look at the data
What the analysis shows
Conclusion

Key findings

Our analysis uncovered two key findings:

  1. The number of people searching by journey time fell dramatically as lockdowns came into force. The biggest impact was on public transport searches, which fell by up to 96%.

  2. The volume of searches by journey time saw a remarkably quick resurgence as restrictions were lifted — and for driving these volumes rose to more than twice the pre-pandemic levels.

While searching by travel time took a hit during the most restrictive months of the pandemic, as things begin to reopen and people readjust to a ‘new normal’ way of life, the ability to search by time seems to be more important than ever.

Where does the data come from?

To run our analysis, we used travel time data from the TravelTime API, which allows you to search the world by journey time instead of distance, using any mode of transport. It answers the question, “How far can I go within X minutes’ public transport/driving/walking/cycling?”

This allows geospatial teams to conduct location analysis for projects such as site selection, or consumer-facing websites to filter and rank search results by journey time. Over 19 billion locations are processed by the API on average every month.

For consumer-facing websites in particular, changes in consumer behaviour have a clear impact on how the API is used.

Taking a look at the data

From our usage data, we added up the total number of locations being searched through the API each month for both public transport and driving.

Over the course of the 14-month period in question, this totalled 230 billion locations searched by public transport or driving through the TravelTime API. However, this was far from evenly distributed across the year.

On top of this data, we layered over the various times at which the UK saw additional restrictions put in place, including the three national lockdowns.

The results look like this:

Monthly location searches using the TravelTime API

UK lockdown announcements:

  1. March 2020: First UK lockdown comes into effect
  2. September 2020: New restrictions are announced in England, including a return to working from home where possible
  3. November 2020: Second national lockdown comes into effect in England
  4. January 2021: Third national lockdown comes into effect in England

What the analysis shows

1. Searches for driving and public transport fell dramatically as restrictions came into force

Unsurprisingly, searches for both driving and public transport fell significantly during the first national lockdown. The impact on public transport was most severe, with the number of locations searched falling from over 9 billion in March 2020 to 410 million in June 2020 — a drop of 96%.

It seems clear that during these first few months, when the lockdown was still an unfamiliar phenomenon, people overwhelmingly stayed at home. Additionally, businesses were yet to start considering how new location strategies might fit into their plans.

2. Searches see a resurgence post-lockdown, with driving recovering fastest

Travel time searches bounced back as lockdown restrictions began to lift in the summer of 2020. Interestingly, searches for driving saw a greater resurgence than public transport. This may be explained by people’s desire to visit friends and family and go on staycations, whilst still avoiding public transport where possible.

The strong recovery of travel time searches during the late summer of 2020 — to levels above even pre-pandemic volumes — indicates a built up demand to adjust to a new normal. For example, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that people are now looking to relocate where they live and reassess where they work. This would see increased website traffic to property and recruitment sites that use the TravelTime API.

Similarly, once a roadmap out of lockdown was published by the UK government at the end of February 2021, searches for driving surged — perhaps with consumers eager to make plans for staycations later in the year.

3. Increased demand by consumers and businesses to search by time

Over the course of the next year, we expect searches based on journey time to continue to rise. As people continue to move further out of large cities — being happy to now accept a longer but less frequent commute — there is a more acute need to be able to search by time instead of distance.

For example, extending an acceptable commute into central London from 1 to 2 hours, as illustrated below, greatly expands the commuter belt. This means that people will need to be able to search by time in order to identify these new, but perhaps less obvious, areas to explore living in.

1-hour public transport catchment areaThe commutable area based on a 1-hour public transport journey to central London, arriving at 9am on a weekday

2-hour public transport catchment areaThe commutable area based on a 2-hour public transport journey to central London, arriving at 9am on a weekday

Time-based search is also likely to continue to increase not only amongst consumers, but also amongst businesses evaluating their own decisions and strategies.

This will include industry-specific challenges, such as restaurant chains and retailers pivoting towards delivery-based models utilising dark kitchens and stores, to more general questions facing all businesses, such as reassessing the optimal locations for offices while taking into account the changing attitudes to remote working.

Conclusion

The impact of Covid-19 lockdowns on travel patterns in the UK is clear from the way in which users interacted with the TravelTime API. Significant drop-offs in searches, particularly for public transport, aligned with times when travel restrictions were at their strictest.

As restrictions began to lift, however, search volumes returned to higher than pre-pandemic levels, perhaps reflecting both changing consumer behaviour and a pivot in business priorities and objectives.

Ultimately, with the pandemic transforming the way in which we live and work, searching by time will only become more critical.

If you want to enable journey time search for users on your website, or to perform location analysis with travel time data, sign up for a free TravelTime API key.

Want to learn how you can use TravelTime for your project? Just contact us below.

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Topics:
Location data Covid-19