What drives differences in human mobility?

Human mobility contributes to economic development but also acts as a major vector for disease importation. By Moritz U.G. Kraemer and Nahema A. Marchal

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Since its onset in December 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended life as we know it. The various cordons sanitaires put in place in cities across the world have already had a profound impact on the world economy and reshaped social norms around travel and physical distancing. Commercial air traffic is only 5% of what it was a year ago and commuting to and from work has decreased by up to 60% in the United States1.

In times of epidemiological crisis, having an accurate understanding of human mobility patterns is essential to better map, predict and analyse the impact of different interventions on disease spread2–4.

Existing studies of human mobility patterns derived from mobile phone data have shown interesting variations at the population level5. However, up until now much less was known about global geographic variations in human movement.

 In the summer of 2019, our international team of researchers set out to characterize human mobility patterns in almost all countries around the world6. Aggregated, anonymized and privacy-secure data was collected from over 300 million smartphone devices, covering over 65% of the world’s populated areas.

Using this near-comprehensive dataset, we were able to show that global variations in human movement (frequency of movements as well as distances travelled) are well-explained by a number of geographically-specific variables. In most regions, average distances travelled can be predicted by spatial variation in nighttime lights, for example — also a proxy for household income7. The paper is now available at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-020-0875-0

Figure 1: Patterns of human movement across the world.

We also find that frequency of movements is, on average, 1.5 times higher in the summer compared to the winter months, with this figure rising up to 2.25 times in Canada in the summer; Figure 1). Further movements are directly affected by climatic factors, socio-demographics and conflict. For example, during the monsoon season in parts of Asia we observe a 25% decline in movements. In low-income countries, 50% of all movements happen in a 2.5km radius around peoples’ homes which is 4 times lower than in high-income countries. Lastly, countries that suffer from armed conflict 95% of all movements occur at only 10km distances around peoples’ homes, substantially impeding peoples’ freedom of movement.

In future work it will be important to enable access to infrastructure to increase economic and social well-being across the world. We hope that after COVID-19 lockdowns are lifted across the world, life can resume and strategies to provide safe and affordable transport as outlined in the Sustainable Development Goals can be expanded and prioritized across the world.



1.        Klein, B. et al. Assessing changes in commuting and individual mobility in major metropolitan areas in the United States during the COVID-19 outbreak. 1–29 (2020).

2.        Kraemer, M. U. G. et al. The effect of human mobility and control measures on the COVID-19 epidemic in China. Science 368, 493–497 (2020).

3.        Buckee, C. O. et al. Aggregated mobility data could help fight COVID-19. Science 8021, eabb8021 (2020).

4.        Gilbert, M. et al. Preparedness and vulnerability of African countries against importations of COVID-19: a modelling study. Lancet 395, 871–877 (2020).

5.        González, M. C., Hidalgo, C. a & Barabási, A.-L. Understanding individual human mobility patterns. Nature 453, 779–82 (2008).

6.        Kraemer, M. U. G. et al. Mapping the global variation of human mobility. Nat. Hum. Behav. (2020). doi:10.1038/s41562-020-0875-0

7.        Blumenstock, J. E. Fighting poverty with data. Science 353, 753–754 (2016).

Moritz Kraemer

Research Fellow, University of Oxford