Cellphone data shows Iowans doing so-so on social distancing

Cellphone data shows Iowans doing so-so on social distancing

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There has been less traffic on Iowa highways since the coronavirus outbreak. 

When it comes to social distancing, Iowans are doing so-so.

Based on location data from cellphones, a tech company is tracking changes in distances traveled before and after the coronavirus pandemic to see how well people are doing at keeping their distance from one another.

Unacast has created a Social Distancing Scoreboard and assigned letter grades to states based on their decreases in distances traveled. States where cellphone tracking showed a reduction of 40 percent or more were given an A. States where movement declined 10 percent of less were given an F.

Iowa — with a 30 percent decrease as of March 22 — landed in the middle with a C.

That puts Iowa in the same company of Nebraska and South Dakota, but trailing Minnesota and Illinois, which each scored an A. Wisconsin and Missouri each received a B.

At the top of the class is Washington, D.C., where distance traveled has fallen 61 percent. At the bottom is Wyoming, where the decrease has been 6 percent.

The Unacast data showed a 32 percent decrease in distance traveled in Johnson County and a 37 percent decline in Linn County.

Overall, the United States earned a B, based on a 40 percent decline in distance traveled.

Travel distance is just one aspect of social distancing, Unacast founder and CEO Thomas Walle wrote in his blog.

“People can travel far without meeting a soul or travel 50 feet and end up in a crowd,” he wrote. “We found the change in average distance traveled worked best as a starting point.”

The use of cellphone data by transportation agencies is becoming commonplace, according to


Stuart Anderson, director of planning and programing at the Iowa Department of Transportation, wasn’t surprised by Unacast’s findings.

The IDOT’s 120 automatic traffic recorders — embedded in the interstate, state highways and local streets and roads — have shown a significant reduction in traffic volume over the past week, Anderson said.

From March 19 to March 25, the DOT saw a 37 percent reduction in traffic volume compared to the same time last year.

The largest decrease — 40 percent — was on city streets.

Although not all of the traffic recorders can differentiate between trucks and passenger vehicles, Anderson said truck traffic appears “relatively stable.”


In Winneshiek County, Board of Supervisors Chairman Jon Logsdon of Ossian attributed the 47 percent decrease in distance traveled to “common sense and good judgment.”

Logsdon speculated that in Winneshiek County and other rural areas, people who may have a 10-mile, one-way trip to the supermarket probably tend to keep more food supplies on hand than people who have only blocks to go.

“It’s just a matter of efficiency,” Logsdon said, as well as the availability of food. “Everybody has a freezer. Everyone is a farmer or knows a farmer they buy quarters (of beef or pork) from.”

In Cedar County, where Unacast said distance traveled has decreased by 18 percent, Supervisor Dawn Smith of Durant thinks people are trying to shelter-at-home, but “in a rural county, we have to get in a car and drive.”

Unless Cedar County residents work at local service industries or in the schools, they commute to jobs in Iowa City, the Quad Cities and other communities, Smith said.

“We have a lot of ag, and it’s moving like normal,” she said. “Truck drivers are hauling. Farmers are still doing all of their business. Seed corn has to be delivered. Even though there is a virus, we have to get the crops in the ground in a timely manner. Livestock feed has not stopped moving.”

The factors Logsdon and Smith cited very well may affect travel across Iowa, but the DOT’s Anderson said it might not be the trips to the grocery store or seed corn deliveries that make the difference.

The five counties with the smallest decreases in distance traveled are on the interstate system, he said.

Three of those counties are on Interstate 80: Cedar, down 18 percent; Cass, down 1 percent; and Iowa, down 23 percent. Clarke County, down 7 percent, is on I-35. Fremont County, on I-29, is down 27 percent.

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