Outside Boston, Cellphone Data Suggests A Biking and Walking Boom

Pedestrians take advantage of expanded walking areas on Beacon Street in Brookline in mid-April. Brookline officials have repurposed on-street parking areas to provide additional space for safe physical distancing in commercial districts and on key routes to area hospitals; City of Boston officials may soon follow suit. Photo courtesy of the Brookline Transportation Department.
Pedestrians take advantage of expanded walking areas on Beacon Street in Brookline in mid-April. Brookline officials have repurposed on-street parking areas to provide additional space for safe physical distancing in commercial districts and on key routes to area hospitals; City of Boston officials may soon follow suit. Photo courtesy of the Brookline Transportation Department.

Cellphone data confirm that Bay Staters are walking and biking considerably more this year compared to 2019 – just not in Boston or its immediate surroundings.

MassDOT has published a new “data dashboard” to illustrate traffic and travel trends since March, and while large declines in transit ridership and highway traffic volumes are getting the most attention, the data also reveal significant shifts in walking and bicycling activity across the state, with distinctive regional patterns.

These walking and bicycling data come from Streetlight, a data broker that collects and interprets anonymized location data from cellphones.

Here, for instance, is the map of bicycling activity in September 2020 compared to September 2019:

Map of Massachusetts bike Activity Sept 2019 vs. Sept2020
Changes in bicycling traffic, inferred from cellphone location data, between September 2019 and September 2020. Courtesy of MassDOT.

More urban municipalities around Boston saw considerable declines in bike traffic between 2019 and 2020 – likely due to a plunge in bike commuting trips and the closure of major college campuses (in western Massachusetts, Springfield, Amherst, and Williamsburg also saw a large dip in bike activity).

But suburbs and small towns – especially along the South Shore and in central Massachusetts – generally saw strong increases in bicycling activity. Streetlight estimates that biking activity increased by 99 percent in Wareham, by 154 percent in Attleboro, and 57 percent in Saugus.

 

Pedestrian activity across the Commonwealth saw much stronger growth in 2020 compared to 2019, albeit with similar geographical patterns:

Map of Massachusetts pedestrian Activity Sept 2019 vs. Sept2020
Changes in pedestrian activity, inferred from cellphone location data, between September 2019 and September 2020. Courtesy of MassDOT.

Again, with the exception of college towns like Cambridge (down 27 percent) and Amherst (down 57 percent), almost every municipality in the state had considerably more pedestrian activity in September 2020 than in 2019.

One other notable exception in this map: the central Massachusetts town of Brimfield, where Streetlight registered 51 percent less foot traffic this September than in September 2019. That could be because Brimfield is home to the massive Brimfield Flea Market, which was cancelled this year.

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