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How Far From Home Are People Traveling?

March 19, 2021
Nick Huntington-Klein

It's no surprise that, for most of 2020, SafeGraph data shows people staying at home a lot more often. We've got no shortage of results on that.

But the simple question of staying home vs. not staying home doesn't answer nearly all the questions we have about people going out during the pandemic. When people go out, are they going to different places? Are they staying closer to home? 

We can certainly imagine that people might be more likely to cut longer trips out of their lives if they have to stay home most of the time, but keep the short ones around. Sure, go to the grocery store around the corner, but skip the trip to the outlet mall, order clothes to be delivered instead.

But is that actually the case? Figuring this out could say a lot about who is likely to be visiting certain stores. Will retail outlets see their target markets change? Will outpost locations like outlet malls be in trouble?

To answer this question, we looked at distance traveled to SafeGraph points of interest (POIs). Each time someone visits a POI (like a business) in SafeGraph data, we check how far of a trip that device had to make to get there. Then, for each location each week, we can calculate the median distance traveled. A high distance traveled means that visitors to that location are coming from farther away.

How was distance traveled affected by the pandemic? At first, quite a lot! Right after COVID struck the US, distance traveled to visited locations dropped by a fair amount, from the median trip being about 5.5 miles away from home down below 4.5. 

However, this was only temporary. After bottoming out in early April, things returned basically to normal very quickly, and by May you'd hardly notice anything had happened, at least on a national scale. Sure, there were fewer visits overall, but the visits that did occur were similarly far away from home as before. Median distance has remained pretty flat since then.

The pattern repeats itself within industries. We looked at full-service and quick-service restaurants, as well as retail. People tend to travel the farthest for full-service restaurant visits, a bit less for retail, and relatively little for quick-service restaurants. All three showed the same pattern, with big dips right after the pandemic arrived, returning basically to normal soon after.

Things do look a little more interesting when we break it down on a state-by-state basis. Comparing distance from home in May-December 2019 vs. May-December 2020, some states do see significant and long-lasting drops. This appears to be due to a reduction in tourism, as Hawaii (6.6 to 4.4 miles from home) and Nevada (7.6 to 5.6) show the biggest declines in distance-from-home. Most states, especially those without outsized tourism sectors, saw relatively little change from year to year.

With the exception of tourism, it doesn't look like a whole lot has changed in terms of how far Americans are willing to travel to visit places like restaurants and retail. It's unlikely that geographic target markets are heading for a big shift either during or after COVID.

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