How did cities stop moving during lockdown?

20 July 2021

With the rise of working from home, the reduction of social contacts and in some cases, restrictions on leaving homes, the coronavirus pandemic has led to a visible decrease in mobility in cities across Europe.

But now, Vienna has used data available from Google to show how different lockdown policies have affected mobility in major cities across the continent.

Figures show that while mobility understandably decreased in cities with more stringent restrictions on life, other cities such as Stockholm – which has never had a full lockdown unlike other capital cities – also saw mobility decline in a similar fashion to other places during the autumn and winter.

What’s more, mobility declined sharply in the run-up to Christmas in all cities included in the data, suggesting a contradiction to the hypothesis from public health experts that the holiday season would lead to an increase in people moving around.

Divided continent

Lockdown policies varied widely among cities, with the general trend being that southern and eastern European cities imposed stricter lockdowns including the closure of non-essential businesses, stay-at-home orders or curfews.

Northern and Western European cities were generally more light touch, with cities such as Vienna, Berlin and Oslo keeping businesses open but imposing restrictions on gatherings.

Notable exceptions include cities in France, Belgium and the UK, where lockdowns were more stringent.

This led to a sharper decline in mobility in cities such as London, Paris, Barcelona, Rome, Madrid and Brussels during the first wave in March 2020.

But while the data shows a uniform drop-off in mobility from March 2020 followed by a recovery into the summer, mobility patterns tend to diverge in cities during the second and third waves.

Mobility generally decreased around week 52 in most cities, contrary to the predictions by public health experts that mobility would skyrocket in this period. Thereafter, the implementation of new restrictions failed to reduce mobility as much as in the first wave, with an increase to levels seen during summer 2020 when restrictions were generally loosened for the first time.

Uncertain recovery

The data was collected from the mobile phones of people moving in each city based on six different location types: grocery, retail, public transport hubs, workplaces, parks and homes. All data points are compared to the ‘baseline’ figure based on the weekly mobility patterns in January 2020.

Despite restrictions having been relaxed in some cities and with other cities even considering a return to some form of restrictions, mobility has still not returned to pre-pandemic levels.

The challenge remains for cities to see how this mobility recovery can be done in a sustainable way, focusing on active travel and public transport.

You can find the full data on the Vienna 1X1 website.