Post-pandemic peak, is freight still flowing into cities?

Data from Samsara shows many people may have left cities during the pandemic, but freight is still flowing in

A Pew Research Center survey found that 22% of Americans moved or knew someone who moved because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In August, Axios reported that rents in Manhattan were falling while people searching for new homes across the U.S. on the Compass Real Estate website were up 40%.

The mass exodus from major cities like New York was underway, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. But that exodus may not be complete, and in some places in the U.S., it’s not even certain there is an exodus happening. Was the great mass migration of 2020 a mirage, the start (or continuation) of a broader long-term exodus of city residents seeking out the suburban lifestyle or just a blip on the radar? The answer could have profound impacts on freight movement in the years ahead.

New York City is a prime example. An early hot spot for COVID, residents now working from home were reportedly fleeing the city for safe havens, hoping to avoid exposure to the virus on crowded city subways and streets. Without the need to be in an office each day and in search of more affordable living, residents were reportedly fleeing. Suburban communities in Connecticut benefited from this exodus, with home prices up 8% over 2019 in that state through August, according to SmartMLS.

“Back in 2005-2006 and in the late 1980s, you would be writing [closing documents] on the hoods of people’s cars, they wanted to submit the second they saw it,” Candace Adams, president and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices New England Properties, told the Hartford Courant. “It’s almost like that now. In fact, it is like that now.”

Home sales would indicate plenty of people are moving around the country. In June, for instance, existing home sales increased 20.7% over May and median housing prices rose in every region of the country, the National Association of Realtors reported.

Atlas Van Lines analyzed data and found South Dakota saw an increase in inbound moves from 38% in 2019 to 50% in 2020. Utah and West Virginia also saw an increase in inbound moves. Conversely, Atlas said California saw an increase in outbound moves from 53% in 2019 to 57% this year.

An exodus, but how quickly?

Has the great mass exodus from cities accelerated? A deeper look into the data shows a more nuanced situation, with some larger cities seeing a drop-off, but not in every case, and some smaller cities growing. The data does suggest, at least anecdotally, that even if people are leaving big cities, they may only be relocating to smaller cities, not suburbia.  

Major cities with significant trip share declines from September 2019 through September 2020. (Photo: Samsara)

Samsara looked at commercial transportation data across its 15,000 customers, studying what it called “trip share” data among the 200 largest cities in the U.S. Looking at 48 million trips into large cities (the top 25) and small cities, Samsara sought to learn whether more or less freight was flowing into these cities over the past year. Based on anecdotal evidence of people leaving cities, the goal was to determine through freight movement as measured by trip share whether this was true and what impact COVID-19 had on this trend.

“We see a lot of major cities like Los Angeles, Baltimore and San Diego that were showing consistent decline in trip share prior to the pandemic,” Ali Akhtar, head of data science at Samsara, explained to FreightWaves, adding that smaller cities were growing in trip share prior to the pandemic.

COVID-19 definitely had an impact on transportation trends in the U.S., he said.

Akhtar’s team looked at data for the food and beverage, wholesale and retail, and transportation and warehousing industries covering September 2019 through September 2020. The company defined a trip share as the ratio of trips that occurred in a given city compared to the total number of trips that occurred in all cities analyzed, allowing the company to “normalize for any overall spikes or dips in total U.S. commercial transportation activity and isolate each city’s specific trend.”

Pre- and post-COVID trends remain the same

According to the data, trip share in the nation’s 25 largest cities was declining before COVID-19 hit, falling 9% in April compared to September 2019. Smaller cities saw a 6% increase during this time.

Major cities with significant trip share increases from September 2019 through September 2020. (Photo: Samsara)

Comparing September 2019 and September 2020 showed how much impact COVID may have had on some cities. Los Angeles (12%), Baltimore (43%), Boston (30%) and Oakland, California (15%), all saw steep declines in trip share. On the opposite side of the spectrum are cities that saw large increases like Savannah, Georgia (190%), St. Paul, Minnesota (140%), Greensboro, North Carolina (70%), and Jacksonville, Florida (50%).

Cities that focus on tourism, such as Las Vegas, took a big hit, Akhtar said. That city saw a 45% decrease in trip share from February through April. San Francisco, which was already experiencing a decline in trip share before the pandemic – likely due to the high cost of living – saw a 37% drop in the same time frame.

FreightWaves’ SONAR Inbound Tender Volume Index (SONAR: ITVI) for these areas shows the impact that shutdowns had. ITVI is an index value that measures inbound tender volume. In Las Vegas (SONAR: ITVI.LAS), the index plummeted to 33.87 on April 5. It has since steadily increased, peaking at 119.41 on Aug. 30. San Francisco (SONAR: IVTI.SFO) reached a low point of 69.76 on April 19 before slowly climbing back to 115.56 as of Sunday.

SONAR data shows a dip in freight moving into Las Vegas early in 2020 before it rebounded into the summer months. (SONAR: ITVI.LAS)

In both cases, the ITVI is showing freight is again flowing back into these regions, suggesting that the exodus may have slowed or even stopped.

The city that never sleeps regains its mojo

New York City, on the other hand, saw a decline but has almost fully recovered. The initial epicenter of the pandemic, the city saw a 28% drop in trip share from February to April as it went into lockdown. New York, though, was not experiencing a large decline in trip share prior to the pandemic, and by September, the city had recovered 95% of its trip share compared to the September 2019 baseline.

SONAR inbound tender data shows this trend. New York’s ITVI (SONAR: IVTI.JFK) fell to 48.76 on April 5 as the city went into shutdown, but as restrictions began lifting in May, the ITVI began rising again and is now at the same level (95.62) it was on March 15 when the lockdowns went into place.

SONAR data shows a dramatic dip in freight moving into New York early in the pandemic, but since May it has been on a rise. (SONAR: ITVI.JFK)

Akhtar said New York, similar to Long Beach, California, and Jacksonville, could be benefiting from ports, which have been busy as retailers restock.

“We thought New York was quite interesting when we saw that V-shaped trend [in trip data] and then coming back (close) to that baseline,” Akhtar said. “One, New York was heavily impacted by COVID and the city had some relatively quick reopening plans once COVID was under control. New York is also a central shipping hub for the Northeast. We think commercial mobility is continuing to flow through New York even as folks are tending to move out of the city.”

If the Samsara data is correct, people fleeing these larger cities may not have been abandoning urban life entirely, though. During the pandemic, smaller cities and those with a lower cost of living have seen increases in their trip share, similar to what was occurring before the pandemic. For instance, Long Beach saw a 22% increase in trip share even as nearby Los Angeles saw a 12% decline. Sacramento, California, saw a 20% increase in trip share while nearby San Francisco saw a 37% decline.

Charlotte, North Carolina, which was already seeing a rise in trip share prior to COVID-19, seems to have benefited from the pandemic, recording a 20% increase in trip share since September 2019.

“One of the trends that we might be seeing here is that folks are leaving much larger cities for smaller cities that are in the same geographic area,” Akhtar said.

Samsara’s data, along with the real estate numbers and SONAR data, show that an exodus from major cities was underway prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but a closer look at trip share data finds that it may be incorrect to imply all cities are losing residents.

While trip share data clearly shows there is a shift occurring, it may not be to the suburbs. Smaller cities may be benefiting much more than originally thought and the COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated that trend. But the data is also not enough to draw any definitive conclusions but yet another data set that suggests a migration is taking place.

It is something that Akhtar said Samsara will continue to monitor.

“One of the most interesting things is just how our transportation data mirrors [broader trends],” he said. “Commercial mobility data reflects consumer-related patterns and we think ultimately some of these trends we are seeing might be leading indicators of future transportation hubs in the country.”

Click for more FreightWaves articles by Brian Straight.

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Brian Straight

Brian Straight leads FreightWaves' Modern Shipper brand as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler. You can reach him at