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Posts tagged with: "TRFVOLUSM227NFWA"

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A downturn in travel of pandemic proportions

The latest data on miles traveled by air, rail, and road

It’s not news to say that people in modern economies travel. For work, school, or pleasure. For a few hours, days, weeks, months, or even longer. Going places has been an integral and obvious part of work and life for most American households and those of any wealthy economy.

It’s also not news to say that travel and work commutes came to a halt last year when governments and individuals began combating the COVID-19  pandemic. Many workers were directed to work from the confines of their own homes, and some were hit even harder and lost their jobs. Normally bustling cities, highways, airports, and train stations came to a standstill and starting looking like staged scenes in a post-apocalyptic movie.

To illustrate this dramatic context, we constructed this FRED graph to track the dramatic change in the number of miles traveled by planes, trains, and automobiles. FRED graphs allow you to scale the values in relation to a specific date, which in this graph is December 2019. We also give ourselves some room by starting back in 2018, two years before the pandemic, to view previous trends and seasonal patterns in the data.

Of course, the graph shows the expected collapse in travel. What seems surprising, however, is the extent of this collapse for planes and trains, the more “social” form of travel.

Air travel, measured in passenger miles, plunged in May 2020 to 3.5% of the level seen in December 2019. The dry period for this industry lasted from April to June 2020. The recovery has been sluggish and is far from complete. The volume of passenger mile traveled in December 2020 is still just a paltry 36.6% of the volume in December 2019.

Rail travel, also measured in passenger miles, had a more moderate collapse, reaching a low of 7.5%. The overall pattern here is very similar to that of air travel, but the recovery is even more sluggish. Rail passenger miles in December 2020 is even more paltry: 21.2% of what it was in December 2019.

Road travel, measured in vehicle miles, reveals some less-dramatic but still interesting patterns. As expected, we see a drastic fall for the months of March and April, but it is much less abrupt than it was for air and rail: It falls to only 61% of the level in December 2019. And some of the decline can be attributed to seasonality, as shown by the data of 2018 and 2019.

Of course, vehicles provide an important advantage in pandemic travel, which is that travelers can remain within their social bubbles. The recovery here is also much faster. By July, the volume of vehicle miles was already at 95.6% of the level in December 2019. However, the expected seasonal pattern would have July numbers normally 7% above December numbers, which indicates the real gap was around 13%. So, as of December 2020, miles were less than 90% of those in December 2019.

No doubt, 2021 and beyond will be different as we re-learn how to travel while keeping ourselves and others as safe as possible. Our methods of freight delivery may also change. For now, we know the ongoing COVID crisis has accelerated the trend of working from home. It may also affect other trends (e.g., millennials’ reluctance to buy cars) and potentially reallocate economic activity across geographic areas, which could have vast implications for us all.

How to make these graphs: Search FRED for “miles” and choose the series “Rail Passenger Miles” (series ID RAILPMD11). From the “Edit Graph” panel, use “Add Line” to search for miles again and select “Air Revenue Passenger Miles” (AIRRPMTSID11) and “Vehicle Miles Traveled” (TRFVOLUSM227NFWA). Under “Units” choose “Index…” and set 100 to December 2019. With the “Format” tab, increase the weight of each line and choose your colors. Finally, use the slider (below graph) or date picker (above graph) to begin the display of data in 2018.

Suggested by Alexander Monge-Naranjo.

View on FRED, series used in this post: AIRRPMTSID11, RAILPMD11, TRFVOLUSM227NFWA

If they drive, they will park (Or if they park, they will drive?)

Correlation does not always equal causation

This graph shows that the more people drive, the more they park and generate revenue for parking lot and garage operators. While there’s clearly a correlation between these two indicators, it isn’t clear that there’s a straightforward causality between them. In fact, a third indicator may be affecting the other two: the number of cars in use, the size of the road network, economic activity in general, commuting distance… Or maybe it’s a combination of all or some of these. This ambiguity is what makes statistical analysis much more complex than simply looking at correlations in a graph. FRED helps you stay rigorous by allowing you to download data into your favorite statistical software, either with a download from FRED itself (for example, via the “Download Data” link below the graph) or natively from the software of your choice. For starters, you can use this published data list.

How this graph was created: Search for and select “parking lot revenue” and click on “Add to Graph.” From the “Edit Graph” menu, search for “GDP deflator” in the “Customize data” section and add the series, applying formula a/b. Then from the “Add Line” tab, search for and add “vehicle miles.” Finally, from the “Format” tab, place the y-axis of the second line on the right side.

How this data list was created. For starters, you need to (create and) log on to a FRED account. Then, from any account page, click on “Add new” and select “Data list.” Give it a name. Then search for the series, check the series you want, and click on “Add to data list.” Repeat until satisfied. You can make the data list public and will be required to give it a public name.

Suggested by Christian Zimmermann.

View on FRED, series used in this post: GDPDEF, REVEF81293TAXABL, TRFVOLUSM227NFWA

Gas prices and transportation habits

When gas prices rise, do Americans park their cars and take the train?

Millions of Americans purchase gasoline each day and make choices about how much to drive, if at all. A basic premise, found in any high school economics textbook, suggests that a rise in the price of something increases the demand for its substitutes. So we might expect the use of public transit to be correlated with gas prices: When gasoline gets more expensive, car travel does too; so, shouldn’t consumers opt for a cheaper alternative, such as public transit? The data shown in the graph, however, don’t reveal anything so clear: When gas prices increase, we might expect a corresponding decrease in vehicle miles traveled and an increase in public transit usage. But that isn’t the case.

The graph tracks the percent change in the price of gas, public transit ridership, and vehicle miles traveled over the past five years. When gas prices have increased, so have public transit ridership and vehicle miles traveled: Americans were both driving more and making greater use of public transit. Seasonally adjusted data on gas prices aren’t available, so that lack of adjustment may explain some of this variation. Consider that Americans travel more in the spring and summer, which is shown by the tendency of all three indicators to spike in March and for transit ridership and vehicle miles both to increase throughout the summer months.

What happens when gas prices decrease? During those times, the relationship between gas price, vehicle miles, and transit use is even less clear, serving as a reminder of the other factors at play in the everyday decisions of Americans. For example, in December 2014, gas prices decreased over 13% while public transit ridership and vehicle miles traveled continued to increase. The price of gas fluctuates often, but the daily obligations of Americans are pretty steady: Commuting to work or school, visiting family, or shipping goods may not change significantly. The convenience of travel options, availability of infrastructure, employment and income levels, and seasonal opportunities are far more influential on transportation habits than the price of gas alone.

How this graph was created: Search for “conventional gas price” and choose the monthly series. From the “Edit Graph” tab / “Add Line” option, search for “public transit” and add the “not seasonally adjusted” series. Add the third line by searching for “vehicle miles” and choosing “Vehicle Miles Traveled (not seasonally adjusted).” From the “Edit Line” option, change the units to “Percent Change” and click “Copy to all.” Adjust the view to the five years starting with January 1, 2012.

Suggested by Maria Hyrc.

View on FRED, series used in this post: GASREGCOVM, TRANSIT, TRFVOLUSM227NFWA


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