Researchers used cell phone location data to compare trips made by people living in high-, middle- and low-income areas of Columbus during the early days of the lockdown in Ohio (15 March to 30 April, 2020) with the same period in 2019.
Results showed that people living in low-income areas reduced their travel by 41 per cent during the lockdown - significantly less than the 51 per cent reduction found for people living in high-income areas and 49 per cent reduction for those from middle-income neighbourhoods.
The findings reveal the stark differences between people whose jobs allowed them to work from home with those mostly lower-income residents who worked in person for essential businesses, said Armita Kar, lead author of the study and a PhD student in geography at Ohio State.
"The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted which socioeconomic groups could work from home and limit their trips to stay safe and which groups couldn't avoid travelling to work," Kar said.
Kar conducted the study with Huyen T.K. Le, assistant professor, and Harvey Miller, professor, both in geography at Ohio State. Their research was published on 4 October in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers.
The researchers used cell phone data that allowed them to see travel flow between specific Columbus neighbourhoods and destinations around the city.
They classified trips as originating in the low-, middle- or high-income areas of the city based on U.S. Census data. Destinations were classified by the dominant business categories at each location, such as service jobs, arts and recreation, and accommodation and food services, among others.
There wasn't just a change in the amount of travel during the pandemic lockdown, results showed. The nature of travel also changed, with the pandemic revealing how socioeconomic status affected where people needed to go or were able to go.
For high-income people, trips became shorter as they didn't have to commute to work and they patronized businesses closer to home. They also showed increased travel during the lockdown to places like parks and outdoor recreation, which was not seen in the lower socioeconomic groups.
"Now instead of travelling because they had to, higher-income residents were travelling more because they wanted to, for discretionary and recreational purposes," said Miller, who is also director of Ohio State's Center for Urban and Regional Analysis, which supported this project.
"They had the work flexibility to seek stress relief at area parks and recreational facilities when they wanted to."
In contrast, low-income people actually travelled greater distances during the lockdown than they did before. The results suggest that many residents in this category had to travel to multiple jobs to make ends meet during the pandemic, according to the researchers.
"We believe their job opportunities became more scattered and so they had to travel more to get to their jobs," Kar said.
Results showed that low-income residents travelled more during the lockdown to areas with concentrations of fast-food restaurants. That was probably both because they were more likely to be working at these businesses and they had to rely more on them for their meals, according to the researchers.
Middle-income residents of Columbus didn't reduce travel as much as high-income people did during the lockdown, probably because they had a wider variety of occupations that couldn't work from home.
Some of them may have been construction workers, the researchers said, since these workers were considered essential by the state of Ohio, as well as other states.
The results of this study suggest that transportation planners and government leaders need to reconsider how they invest in travel infrastructure, Le said.
"We need to focus travel infrastructure more in the lower-income areas of the city," Le said. "Lower-income residents are the ones that don't have a choice and will have to continue to travel to work when others can stay at home."
Miller added, "When we think of travel and travel demand, it is not one size fits all. Different social groups have different needs for travel and mobility. Covid-19 really exposed that."