Using mobile device data to track the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on spatiotemporal patterns of national park visitation

John A. Kupfer, Zhenlong Li, Huan Ning, Xiao Huang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

42 Scopus citations


Effective quantification of visitation is important for understanding many impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on national parks and other protected areas. In this study, we mapped and analyzed the spatiotemporal patterns of visitation for six national parks in the western U.S., taking advantage of large mobility records sampled from mobile devices and released by SafeGraph as part of their Social Distancing Metric dataset. Based on comparisons with visitation statistics released by the U.S. National Park Service, our results confirmed that mobility records from digital devices can effectively capture park visitation patterns but with much finer spatiotemporal granularity. In general, triggers of visitation changes corresponded well with the parks’ management responses to COVID-19, with all six parks showing dramatic decreases in the number of visitors (compared to 2019) beginning in March 2020 and continuing through April and May. As restrictions were eased to promote access to the parks and the benefits associated with outdoor recreation, visitation in 2020 approached or even passed that from 2019 by late summer or early autumn at most of the parks. The results also revealed that parks initially saw the greatest increases in visitation after reopening originating from nearby states, with visitorship coming from a broader range of states as time passed. Our study highlights the capability of mobility data for providing spatiotemporally explicit knowledge of place visitation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number9366
JournalSustainability (Switzerland)
Issue number16
StatePublished - Aug 2 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Computer Science (miscellaneous)
  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • Environmental Science (miscellaneous)
  • Energy Engineering and Power Technology
  • Hardware and Architecture
  • Computer Networks and Communications
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law

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