An Analysis of the Impact of COVID-19 on Urban Mobility

Written by Sara Paiva

Smart mobility is one of the two indicators, alongside governance, which assumes greater relevance in the classification of a city as being smart [1]. In the last decade, we have seen a paradigm shift in the transportation of people and goods, moving towards the new Mobility-as-a-Service paradigm, which aims to change the vision about mobility, progressively moving from the individual model of using private cars to a shared model. This change will require a holistic change in the society and will be a fundamental piece to meet the 17 sustainable development goals defined by the United Nations for 2030 [2], thus improving the quality of life for citizens [3]. The growing world population density, with a large agglomeration in cities and urban areas [4], where an estimated 8 billion people are expected in 2020 [5][6], has received more and more attention and actions to ensure a mobility in the future that is more equitable, sustainable, efficient and convenient for citizens [7]. This was the direction and path of urban mobility in the pre-COVID-19 era, until, on March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 to be a worldwide pandemic. This resulted in significant changes in many aspects of the society, which also included, to a considerable extent, the mobility of citizens. The seriousness of the situation from the point of view of health, obliged government entities to take a set of measures with regard to the mobility of people and goods, which include [8]: 1) prohibition of unnecessary circulation of citizens, 2) adapting the mobility of people and essential goods to avoid extending transmission chains, 3) reducing the use of public transportation which represents a huge risk of contagion, and 4) reducing the contact between people, leading to e-ticketing being privileged as well as entering the bus by the back door only. In Milan and Barcelona, the maximum occupancy of public transportation was reduced to 25% and to 50%, respectively [9]. In Ireland it was reduced to 20% [10] and in Portugal to 66% [11]. It is believed that many behavioral changes that have occurred will remain in the post-COVID-19 era [12]. In the following section, we present a mobility trends analysis (since January 2020) regarding different types of transportation.


Mobility Trends Analysis

In order to make an analysis of the worldwide mobility trends since the beginning of the pandemic, data made available by Apple [13] was used, collected daily since 13/01/2020, which refers to the relative volume of requests by country in comparison with a baseline volume (100) verified on January 13, 2020. The processing of these data allows to draw a set of conclusions about the global mobility pattern taking into account the confinement periods that happened worldwide. Figure 1 shows the average values regarding driving, walking and public transportation usage, considering 47 countries, from which several conclusions can be drawn:

  • In the month of March, after the pandemic was declared worldwide, the values of the various types of mobility are all below the base value of 100, as a consequent result of global confinement in several countries.
  • In April, values maintained a downward trend.
  • As of May, there is an easing of confinement rules in several countries and pedestrian mobility and the use of private vehicles began to rise again, a trend that continued until August.
  • In September and October, several countries began to notice an increase in the number of infected people, which led to new confinement measures, which are reflected again in the level of mobility, which drops further although never below the base value of 100, for pedestrian and driving mode.
  • It should be highlighted that the use of public transport has never exceeded the base value since March 2020, which reflects both a governmental decision as well as concerns by the citizens themselves.

apple data movement transportation
Figure 1 - Apple Data movement request by type of transportation, gathered from 47 countries from 13/01/2021 until 31/01/2021

Based on Figure 1, it is possible to conclude that the use of public transportation was the most affected way of mobility, due to the cluster of people it involves and, therefore, the greater possibility of increasing transmission chains. The data presented in Figure 1 is an average of 47 countries, but not all have had the same restrictive measures. Figure 2 shows the use of public transportation by a group of selected countries, with distinct behaviors. Countries such as France, Germany and Japan maintained high levels of public transport use, from March to the present date, in some months with values well above the base value. On the other hand, countries such as Ireland, Italy, Mexico, the Philippines or the United States of America have kept the values below the base value since March 2020 until today.

apple data movement transportation
Figure 2 – Apple Data movement request of public transportation, gathered from selected countries from 13/01/2021 until 31/01/2021


The presented analysis allows us to conclude that mobility, in its various aspects, has been greatly affected by the pandemic, which was to be expected. The coming times will be decisive to realize if the impact of some changes caused by the pandemic will become permanent, considering that many behaviors and habits have changed in this last year. The mobility-as-a-service paradigm and the way in which shared transport is going to be positioned is also an unknown question and an aspect to be monitored because, although there are challenges in this whole situation, there are also opportunities and scope for innovation.



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  2. United Nations (2020) Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Available at Last accessed on January 21st 2020.
  3. N. A. Smith et al., "A Safety Index for Smart Mobility using Real-Time Crowdsourced Data," 2020 IEEE International Smart Cities Conference (ISC2), Piscataway, NJ, USA, 2020, pp. 1-8, doi: 10.1109/ISC251055.2020.9239007.
  4. P. Mrazovic et al., "CIGO! Mobility management platform for growing efficient and balanced smart city ecosystem," 2016 IEEE International Smart Cities Conference (ISC2), Trento, 2016, pp. 1-4, doi: 10.1109/ISC2.2016.7580750.
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  6. Garsten, E. (2018) Sharp Growth in Autonomous Car Market Value Predicted But May Be Stalled By Rise In Consumer Fear. Available online at Accessed on January 18th 2021
  7. Corwin, S., Zarif, R., Berdichevskiy, A. and Pankratz, D. (2020) The futures of mobility after COVID-19 Scenarios for transportation in a postcoronavirus world. Available at Last acessed on January 29th 2021
  8. European Parliament, COVID-19 and urban mobility: impacts and perspectives (2020) Available at Last accessed on February 9th 2021
  9. POLIS, Post-Lockdown Mobility webinar report: The post-lockdown strategies of Barcelona and Milan (2020) Available at Last accessed on February 9th 2021
  10. European Commission, Mobility and Transport (2020). Available at Last accessed on February 9th 2021
  11. VisitPortugal, COVID-19 | Measures implemented in Portugal (2020) Available at Last accessed on February 9th 2021
  12. Audenhove, F., Rominger, G., Eagar, R., Pourbaix, J., Dommergues, E., Carlier, J. (2020) The Future of Mobility post-COVID. Available at Last accessed on january 27th 2021
  13. Apple, Mobility Trends Reports (2021) Available at Last accessed on February 9th 2021


This article edited by Francesco Flammini

For a downloadable copy of the May 2021 eNewsletter which includes this article, please visit the IEEE Smart Cities Resource Center.

Sara Paiva is an Assistant Professor at the Polytechnic Institute of Viana do Castelo, a PhD in Informatics Engineering from University of Vigo in 2011 and a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Oviedo, under advanced driving assistants. Her main line of research is smart inclusive mobility in smart cities. She is IEEE Senior Member, Vice-Chair of the IEEE Smart Cities Marketing Committee and member of the Editorial Committee of IEEE P2784 Smart City Planning and Technology Standard. She was General Co-Chair of the EAI International Convention on Smart Cities 360º 2020 with 10 co-located conferences. She is Associate Editor of IF journals such as MONET and WINET.  She is editor of books with Springer, CRC Press, Cambridge Scholar, and special issues in several impact factor journals. She has authored and co-authored several scientific publications in journals and conferences and is a frequent reviewer of international journals and international conferences.

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