Commuting & Covid-19: How the pandemic changed my travel behavior

This is Simon, a software engineer at Datawrapper. For this edition of the Weekly Chart, I have illustrated how my travel behavior has changed due to the pandemic. I took inspiration from a recent blog post by Achim Tack.

In March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic was still a looming threat and did not affect my daily life in a significant way. Then, on the night of March 10, I came down with a very strange cold[1]. When I was finally better and ready to go back to work after a few days of rest, we were in the midst of a public health emergency, and everyone at Datawrapper had switched to working remotely. Before the pandemic, I used to commute to the Datawrapper office three to four times a week. Now, I was grounded at home, in a small town about 60 kilometers north of Berlin.

At the beginning of 2019, my wife and I had moved from Berlin to the town of Eberswalde, which added a total of about 120 kilometers of train travel to a normal workday in the office. Other than the new commute, the twelve months before the pandemic were pretty representative of my pre-coronavirus lifestyle. I used to travel longer distances fairly regularly, both for work and to visit friends and family across the country. In 2019, I also took two vacations: an extended bike trip to the Baltic coast and another in France’s Alsace region. That way, I racked up a total of almost 25,000 kilometers, traveled mostly by train and bike. During the pandemic, my yearly travel was reduced to about a quarter of that.

When Germany went into the first nationwide Covid-19 lockdown, I already worked from home and had canceled all travel plans for the weeks to come. So in terms of travel, the lockdown did not change much for me. Also, unlike other countries’ Covid-19 precautions, the German idea of a ‘lockdown’ included few mobility restrictions and it was always possible to spend time outdoors. To stay sane, I used the time I gained from not commuting to take long walks and bike rides. I didn’t miss commuting, but I missed seeing my coworkers, friends, and family.

As the coronavirus situation eased over the summer, my wife and I temporarily moved our ‘office’ to the south of Germany, where we both have family. In September, we spent a fairly normal summer vacation in the Black Forest, with camping and some bike touring. We even got to hang out with friends in an actual beer garden. I know it is hard to imagine today, but that was Germany in summer 2020.

Back in the Berlin region, I commuted to the (mostly deserted) Datawrapper office a handful of times. But when the pandemic got worse, I finally stuck to working remotely. These days, when I can’t stand working alone at home anymore, I take a stroll over to a shared office space in my neighborhood[2]. There, I work alongside a small group of other ex-commuters—with appropriate distance and safety precautions.

I know that compared to many others, I am in a rather privileged position right now. I am healthy, my job is barely affected by the pandemic, and I don’t have to juggle work and childcare during times when schools are closed. Yet, I can’t wait for our fully vaccinated life after the pandemic. I’m looking forward to meeting friends, hanging out in cafes, and having lunch with coworkers. However, I don’t think I want to ever go back to traveling 25,000 kilometers per year.

About the data

This blog post was inspired by a similar project by Achim Tack, who you may know as a data journalist for Spiegel Online. His original project is much more extensive than my post. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should head over now.

Achim’s project is based on data from his Google Location History. I don’t automatically track my travel, so I assembled the data retroactively from train tickets, records of bike trips, and estimates based on my work schedule and calendar entries. While my data is not 100% accurate, it is still reasonably exact to see general patterns[3].

That’s it from me for this week. As always, do let me know if you have feedback, suggestions, or questions. I am looking forward to hearing from you at simon@datawrapper.deMastodon, or Twitter.

  1. Today, I am pretty sure it was a mild case of Covid-19, but back in March 2020, I did not know much about the symptoms so I did not connect the dots. At that time, it was also close to impossible to get tested unless you were seriously sick or had direct contact with someone who was. ↩︎
  2. If you ever happen to be stranded in Eberswalde, join me at the Thinkfarm coworking space. ↩︎
  3. I am pretty sure I have vastly underestimated the distances I walked and biked, both during the pandemic year and before. ↩︎