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Staying put during the pandemic: Fewer miles in trains, planes, and automobiles

An earlier FRED Blog post covered the trends and cycles in the average number of miles per person traveled on the road. More recently, we’ve seen changes in all kinds of travel as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The graph above uses data from the Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics on the number of miles traveled each month by people riding trains, planes, and automobiles.

  • A rail passenger-mile is 1 passenger carried 1 mile.
  • An air revenue passenger-mile is 1 paying passenger carried 1 mile.
  • And vehicle miles traveled is the sum of the number of roadway miles traveled by each vehicle and (barring unoccupied self-driving cars) amounts to at least 1 person per vehicle per mile.

Before the pandemic, in February 2020, for each mile traveled by rail there were 167 miles traveled by air and 511 miles traveled by road vehicle. But as professional sport games and cultural and recreational venues closed, personal travel plans were scrapped; and the need for social distancing replaced business travel with teleconferencing.

Between February and April

  • Travel by rail declined 92%.
  • Travel by air declined 96%.
  • Travel on roads declined 41%.

All types of miles rebounded between April and May. Travel by rail and air improved some but the difference is almost imperceptible. Travel on roads rebounded the most, which may reflect a partial substitution from trains and planes to automobiles, where social distancing is much easier to accomplish. But as of May, road miles still remained 27% below their February value.

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How this graph was created: Search for and select “Rail Passenger Miles.”
From the “Edit Graph” panel, use the “Add Line” tab to search for and select “Air Revenue Passenger Miles” and “Vehicle Miles Traveled.” Next, customize Line 1 by typing the formula a/10 and clicking “Apply.” Last, from the “Edit Graph” panel, click on the “Format” tab. Under Line 3, select “Y-Axis position: right” and select colors to taste. Note: Because the order of magnitude of each series is dramatically different, we customized the data units and graph format to allow us to see the three series at once.

Suggested by Diego Mendez-Carbajo.

View on FRED, series used in this post: AIRRPMTSID11, RAILPMD11, VMTD11


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