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David Pendered Columns

Reopening metro Atlanta’s economy safely: Google offers data to inform decisions

David Pendered
buckhead, I-85, 5:9:20 Traffic congestion has all but disappeared during the stay-at-home policies enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic. That was the case May 9, on this stretch of I-85 that usually is fairly busy approaching the intersection with Ga. 400. Credit: David Pendered.

By David Pendered

Google has made public a treasure trove of never-before-seen proprietary data that could help decision makers reopen the economy safely in metro Atlanta. Google’s report shows changes in categories of places people visit – whether they’re going to work, buy groceries or walk the dog, and so forth.

This snapshot of Fulton County’s mobility information from Google provides data that’s more granular than previously available to the public about categories of places individuals visit. Credit: gstatic.com

“We at ARC have never had the data before, especially in a real time environment,” said John Orr, who manages the Transportation and Mobility Group at the Atlanta Regional Commission.

Google’s data can inform a more nuanced reading of the transit ridership and roadway trips that are compiled by MARTA and Georgia’s Department of Transportation. Both entities closely monitor changes in usage that have occurred since the implementation of policies intended to flatten the transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19.

For example, MARTA’s reports show declines of 70 percent to 80 percent in rail ridership, and of 45 percent in bus ridership. GDOT’s tracking shows the disappearance of traffic congestion on interstate highways, and an even greater decline in usage of state routes in the region, such as Piedmont and Peachtree roads. Google’s data can add to these reports by showing the destinations of folks who evidently fell off the grids monitored by MARTA and GDOT.

One risk is the potential overload of information available to decision makers. At some point, they have to make decisions based on their best evaluation of the information they can digest. Data can show conditions at a given point it time; data cannot predict an outcome with a high degree of accuracy.

buckhead, I-85, 5:9:20

Traffic congestion has all but disappeared during the stay-at-home policies enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic. That was the case May 9, on this stretch of I-85 that usually is fairly busy approaching the intersection with Ga. 400. Credit: David Pendered.

Google observes that its information on where individuals travel could inform a myriad of decisions on a range of questions: What hours are optimal for businesses to reopen; what hours will delivery services encounter the least traffic congestion; what bus and train routes are heavily used, and thus in need of additional vehicles to allow for social distancing.

These macro decisions come with a host of micro decisions: How to manage the arrival time of employees if temperature-testing is enacted; can bathroom usage be managed through work-at-home policies; should employees be given time to run personal errands during the workday, to lessen crowds at grocery stores after the traditional workday.

Google released data on 171 countries and regions. As Google observes:

  • “Ultimately, understanding not only whether people are traveling, but also trends in destinations, can help officials design guidance to protect public health and essential needs of communities.”

The company made similar information public in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Areas that had been inundated in 2005 were shown on Google Maps and Google Earth, which a report by forbes.com credited with helping with rescue and relief efforts.

highway congestion, afternoon

Traffic congestion in metro Atlanta has all but disappeared during the stay-at-home orders during the COVID-19 crisis. The map on the left shows red and yellow lines denoting afternoon congestion before orders took effect. The map on the right shows a general absence of traffic congestion. Credit: GDOT

Information provided in Google’s COVID-19 Community Mobility Report is part of the data gathered for Google Maps. The mapping platform intends to aid in navigation, checking traffic and transit, and finding destinations such as restaurants.

The comparisons are derived by measuring the destinations visited from the pre-virus period with destinations in more recent days. These comparisons show how individuals have responded to stay-at-home policies. The same privacy protocols apply to both data sets, according to Google: No individual information is released and users must first agree to have their locations monitored.

Here are few examples of destinations Google observed in the five-county core of metro Atlanta:

lithonia, inbound I-20, 3:14:20

Slow-and-go traffic congestion was the norm on I-20 in DeKalb County, westbound near Lithonia, as commuters filled lanes heading east and west on March 14. Credit: David Pendered

  • Clayton – Retail and recreation, down 5 percent; grocery and pharmacy, up 21 percent; workplace, down 24 percent; transit stations, down 78 percent; parks, up 20 percent.
  • Cobb – Retail and recreation, down 29 percent; grocery and pharmacy, up 7 percent; workplace, down 25 percent; transit stations, down 29 percent; parks, down 3 percent;
  • DeKalb – Retail and recreation, down 26 percent; grocery and pharmacy, up 8 percent; workplace, down 28 percent; transit stations, down 27 percent; parks, up 47 percent;
  • Fulton – Retail and recreation, down 38 percent; grocery and pharmacy, down 1 percent; workplace, down 31 percent; transit stations, down 40 percent; parks, down 16 percent;
  • Gwinnett – Retail and recreation, down 25 percent; grocery and pharmacy, up 9 percent; workplace, down 24 percent; transit stations, down 6 percent; parks, up 67 percent.

Orr presented the data from Google during an ARC webinar on May 5, How COVID-19 has Affected Transportation in Metro Atlanta. Orr was joined by Heather Alhadeff, MARTA’s assistant GM for planning, and Mark Demidovich, GDOT’s assistant state traffic engineer. ARC’s Melissa Roberts moderated the discussion. ARC has posted its webinars and COVID-19 resources on this page of its website.

 

2016-03-10 10.25.46

A steady stream of vehicles pass beneath MARTA’s Arts Center Station as they traverse the Downtown Connector. File/Credit: Kelly Jordan

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David Pendered
David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.

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1 Comment

  1. Avatar
    Cassandra Holbrook May 19, 2020 9:53 am

    This is very interesting! However, I live and work in midtown, and am surprised work trips are only down about 25% in all the counties. Roads in Midtown, such as Peachtree and Juniper, and interstates, are visibly down in traffic density by at least half, if not more. I work in Colony Square, and was there yesterday. There is hardly a soul working in offices. The parking decks are near empty. I wonder what accounts for that apparent discrepancy in decreased numbers.Report

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