September 28, 2020 | Mobility behaviour in a time of crisis

A second DLR study on COVID-19 and mobility – public transport wanes in popularity, private transport gains in importance

  • DLR transport researchers surveyed 1000 people on the subject of mobility between the end of June and the beginning of July 2020.
  • Respondents expressed unease about public transport, rail, air travel and car sharing.
  • Owning a vehicle is still regarded as a feel-good factor.
  • The majority of those surveyed continue to switch to online retail.
  • Focus: Transport, intelligent mobility

Public transport is losing ground in Germany, while the importance of individual means of transport, especially private cars, is increasing. These are the key findings of the second survey conducted by the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) Institute of Transport Research. DLR conducted a comprehensive survey of 1000 people from late June to early July 2020 to investigate how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting mobility behaviour now that restrictions have been relaxed. An initial survey was carried out during the lockdown in April 2020 (results here). In the second survey, the scientists looked at the medium- and long-term effects of the Coronavirus pandemic on attitudes and behaviour in the mobility sector.

Opportunities and risks for the mobility transition

"It is becoming apparent that things will not simply go back to the way they were. Rather, it is a question of what the 'new normal' will look like in terms of mobility. Behaviours that were adopted for the first time during this unprecedented situation have become ingrained and are having an influence on new routines," says Barbara Lenz, Head of the DLR Institute of Transport Research, summing up the findings. These changes are associated with various opportunities and risks when it comes to the success of the mobility transition. "People are trying out environment-friendly alternatives, such as cycling. In some cities, what are referred to a pop-up cycle paths have been created to support this development. Working from home does away with the need to commute to work." Yet at the same time, Lenz continues, there is also a return to private, less sustainable means of transport. "Private vehicles have emerged as the clear winner during the crisis, while public transport has lost out. Sustainable mobility concepts such as car sharing have also weakened. We are now further from a mobility transition than ever, as strong public transport is necessary for its success. This should be the clear focus in future."

Despite a return to normality, respondents perceive mobility to be restricted

Analysis of mobile network data suggests that the volume of traffic at the time of the second survey had largely returned to pre-COVID-19 levels. However, those questioned perceived the situation quite differently – 43 percent stated that they had travelled less or much less than usual in the previous seven days. Approximately half of those surveyed said that the number of trips they are taking has gone back to normal.

Different modes of transport have been affected to varying degrees. Approximately two thirds of respondents stated that they were travelling by bicycle, in a car or on foot just as often as they did before. However, around half said that they were using public transport less and, for the most part, much less often. This coincides with the significantly lower number of passengers on both local and long-distance public transport.

Cars have the feel-good factor, while public transport is shunned

The respondents expressed very different feelings in relation to public transport in the first and second surveys. They voiced great unease about travelling by train, aeroplane, car sharing or local public transport. They felt especially uncomfortable about flying (31 percent), followed by travelling by train and other public transport (25 percent). This was particularly the case for those who used local public transport on a regular basis. Women had greater misgivings than men, while young people and city dwellers also felt especially uneasy. "This is a worrying development. After all, these are precisely the groups that use local public transport frequently, in their day-to-day lives. Local public transport really is one of the biggest losers in this crisis," Lenz sums up.

Meanwhile, cars are still associated with a major feel-good factor. This was less pronounced in summer than in spring, but it is still clearly present. Some 80 percent of those surveyed indicated that their views remained unchanged, while 16 percent were seeing things more positively. During lockdown, around a third of people from households without a car missed having their own vehicle. This figure has now dropped to a fifth. Almost 60 percent of local public transport users state that they do not have their own car. Of those who used a bicycle every day, this figure was only 13 percent. Among households without a car, the proportion of those intending to buy one remains at six percent. In almost three quarters of such cases, the intention to purchase was related to COVID-19.

Importance of online retail continues to grow

In the second survey, the participants stated that they were visiting the shops just as often for daily necessities as they were before COVID-19. However, many of them still felt uneasy about doing so. Two out of three respondents agreed with the statement that going shopping was currently less enjoyable. The widespread shift to online shopping continues unabated – in the four weeks before the survey, 82 percent had shopped online, up from just under half before the pandemic. In particular, young adults aged 35 and under shop online very frequently, with almost half of them having done so at least four times in the previous month. One third of all participants expected to be doing a lot more online shopping in a year’s time.

Leisure in the summer of the Coronavirus pandemic

The respondents stated that they had engaged in leisure activities much less frequently than in the summer months of the previous year. This decline is partly a result of the lack of large-scale events, but it is also attributable to a reluctance to visit restaurants, attend cultural events and take part in sports activities. On the other hand, those surveyed took part in leisure activities where they were unlikely to meet others with a similar frequency. Approximately half said that they felt more uncomfortable or a lot more uncomfortable about engaging in indoor activities than they did before.

Job-related mobility – the trend towards working from home continues

Many of those surveyed continue to work from home. Almost 40 percent of respondents who have a job report that they are working from home some or all of the time. However, they are doing so in a more flexible way than they were at the time of the first study in April. Of those who had the opportunity to work from home, 75 percent saw this as a positive thing – a 15-percent rise since spring. The number of people who envisage working more from home over the long term has risen since April, from 59 to 70 percent.

About the study

The results are based on a representative sample of 1000 people in Germany, aged between 18 and 82 years. The survey organisation Kantar conducted the survey on behalf of the DLR Institute of Transport Research over the period between 29 June and 8 July 2020. DLR's mobility experts are planning to conduct a third survey in the autumn. The aim is to continue investigating medium- and long-term changes in mobility behaviour and in attitudes to different modes of transport.

More information on the study as well as additional images and graphics can be found here.


Denise Nüssle

German Aerospace Center (DLR)
Corporate Communications
Pfaffenwaldring 38-40, 70569 Stuttgart
Tel: +49 711 6862-8086

Prof. Dr. Barbara Lenz

German Aerospace Center (DLR)
Institute of Transport Research
Rutherfordstraße 2, 12489 Berlin