2021 in numbers: Mobility – Hindustan Times
When the Spanish flu, one of the deadliest pandemics in recorded history before Covid-19, took place in 1918, the world was much less connected than it is today. Railways and ships were the fastest modes of passenger transport with large scale commercial flights yet to take off. Today’s modern world depends on the ease of mobility, something that came to a grinding halt last year due to the Covid-19. Here are two charts that explain what changed on this front in 2021.
One dataset that has become increasingly useful in tracking mobility (and is therefore also used to track economic activity) is Google’s Community Mobility Reports. These reports, which Google started publishing last year in light of the pandemic, give mobility percentage changes from baseline in six categories: groceries and pharmacies, parks, transit stations, places of retail and recreation, residences, and workplaces. Mobility here can represent the number of visitors to places such as transit stations or the time spent in places such as residences. The baseline for a day of the week is the median value of mobility in the five-week period from January 3 to February 6 in 2020.
What does this data show about changes in mobility since the pandemic? From February 15 to December 31 in 2020, the average global mobility at residences was 109.7, where a hundred represents the baseline. This suggests that people stayed at home longer in the rest of the year than they did at the beginning of the year. Up to December 6 in 2021, while this value is still above a hundred, it has come down slightly to 104.1, suggesting people stayed at home less in 2021 than they did last year. All other five places had a mobility value under a hundred last year, with grocery and pharmacy mobility closest to a hundred (92.8), as it is an essential place to visit. This year, grocery and pharmacy mobility has gone far above the baseline to 119.8.
Other than residences, groceries, and pharmacies – the three places people were bound to stay or visit even during the pandemic – mobility to all other places had decreased significantly in 2020, particularly in March and April, when the infection became a pandemic. On average in 2020, parks suffered the least, with a mobility level of 95.8, perhaps because they are open spaces that allow for social distancing. This was followed by workplaces (77.9), a visit necessary for livelihood. Places of retail and recreation (76.5) and transit stations (73.6) saw the most decline in mobility.
Mobility to all these four categories has improved this year, but only visits to parks (113.3) have averaged above the baseline, with a big improvement in the second half of the year. Retail and recreation mobility was the next closest to baseline (96.1) this year, followed by transit stations (92.6), while workplace mobility lags the most behind the baseline at 85.9. This suggests that while people have started going out more, workplaces are still being cautious about allowing people back in.
To be sure, these global values are not the actual values of mobility compared to the baseline. Google publishes only the percentage change from baseline for 135 different countries, and not absolute mobility levels. So the averages shown above are based only on the averages of these percentage changes. Moreover, Google’s own data is anonymized data from the location history its users opt in for. So it may not accurately represent mobility of places where internet penetration is low or where people don’t often use Google’s location history feature.
What happened to mobility in India in 2021? The trends in residences or visits to groceries and pharmacies are the same as the global level. The mobility values for these places were 114.3 and 90.7 in 2020 on average. They are 111.7 and 118.5 in 2021. The trends for the other four non-essential places are however different. Workplaces had the best mobility levels in 2020 (70.6) which was followed by mobility for transit stations (67.3), parks (59.6), and retail and recreation (53.5). This year, while mobility at transit stations (88.6) and parks (87.7) has inched above the mobility at workplaces (80.9), retail and recreation mobility (75.6) continues to hang below the baseline. This suggests that while globally people might have started to consume more with lockdowns gone and vaccinations in progress, Indians have used this opportunity to move around – perhaps to visit friends and family – and enjoy the outdoors as long as it does not involve spending.
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