Fewer people stayed put during Nova Scotia's most recent lockdown, data shows
Policy-makers turn to mobility data to make decisions about pandemic and other areas
As Nova Scotia starts to emerge from the latest provincewide lockdown, a drop in traffic data suggests many followed public health guidelines to limit their movements.
But the drop this time wasn't as drastic as it was during the spring 2020 lockdown — not even in the first days after Premier Iain Rankin and Dr. Robert Strang, the province's chief medical officer of health, urged people to stay home.
Using traffic data from Tom Tom, a company that specializes in location information technology and GPS, CBC News graphed pre-pandemic weekly congestion on Halifax roads in the spring of 2019 alongside congestion from spring 2020 and 2021.
On April 22, 2021, the province announced a two-week circuit breaker for Halifax, which was extended into a full provincial lockdown days later. Travel was limited to within one's own community.
After the announcement, the weekly average congestion level dropped to between eight and nine per cent, down from 13 per cent.
That's much lower than the same time period in 2019, but higher than the same time period in 2020.
Goodbye, hour-long commute
Harrison Regan used to drive from the Bedford area to the Windmill Road area of Dartmouth to get to his work at a tech company.
The company offered all employees the option to work from home and Regan took advantage of it. He hasn't been back to the office since the first day of the 2020 lockdown.
"That commute is no longer taking up an hour — maybe more — of the day. And I can use that hour for whatever I want it to be," he said. On the other hand, Regan said he does miss connecting with colleagues when working in the same space.
Harbour bridges saw 50% drop in traffic
Other organizations have been tracking mobility data created by commuters like Regan, including Halifax Harbour Bridges.
The Macdonald and MacKay bridges saw a 50 per cent drop in traffic in April 2020 as compared to the previous April. Through the fall and winter, traffic rebounded to about 90 per cent. Rush hours became more quiet, with more people travelling outside of traditional peak hours.
There was a drop at the tolls again in the most recent lockdown, but this time to 65 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.
The Downtown Halifax Business Commission has been tracking pedestrians in the downtown core, using electronic pedestrian counters that were installed several years prior to the pandemic.
The commission found pedestrian traffic in May 2020 dropped to 17 per cent of the numbers recorded in May 2019.
"It's a bit of a different story this May," said Paul MacKinnon, commission chair. Pedestrian traffic last month sank to about 36 per cent of 2019's baseline.
"There are more people walking around downtown this May than last May, which I don't think is surprising. Anecdotally, you can kind of see that," he said. However, MacKinnon added the change is still a "massive" decrease, which has had a big effect on downtown businesses.
Who cares about traffic patterns?
Policy-makers pay attention to mobility data, and are finding new ways to use it during the pandemic.
Former premier Stephen McNeil pointed to Google data about people's movements when he scolded Nova Scotians for going to parks and beaches that were closed under public health orders.
After the pandemic began, Halifax set up a website to track data on when and where drivers, pedestrians, transit users, and cyclists were going about the city.
Some of that information helped shape street-use policies last year, said Dartmouth councillor Sam Austin. He said people may remember how some streets had barrels or barriers placed on them.
"Some of the feedback we had during the pandemic was that we need more space to social distance, so that was probably the most obvious piece that we had out there," he said.
Some of the policies will return for 2021, said Austin, but one challenge is that complete data isn't always available. For example, a lot is known about car movements in Halifax, but less is known about pedestrian movements.
"You're in this funny place as decision-makers where you have really, really solid data in a couple areas, some good data in other spots, and then an absence of data in other areas completely," he said.
Restrictions on travel within Nova Scotia were lifted Tuesday as the province's number of active COVID-19 cases continues to drop. Non-essential businesses reopened their doors to 25 per cent capacity on Wednesday and restaurants welcomed patrons to outdoor patios.
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With files from Dexter McMillan, Dave Irish, Steve Lawrence