Urban exodus? Understanding human mobility in Britain during the COVID-19 pandemic using Meta-Facebook data

Francisco Rowe, Alessia Calafiore, Daniel Arribas-Bel, Krasen Samardzhiev, Martin Fleischmann

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Existing empirical work has focused on assessing the effectiveness of nonpharmaceutical interventions on human mobility to contain the spread of COVID-19. Less is known about the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped the spatial patterns of population movement within countries. Anecdotal evidence of an urban exodus from large cities to rural areas emerged during early phases of the pandemic across western societies. Yet, these claims have not been empirically assessed. Traditional data sources, such as censuses offer coarse temporal frequency to analyse population movement over infrequent time intervals. Drawing on a data set of 21 million observations from Meta-Facebook users, we aim to analyse the extent and evolution of changes in the spatial patterns of population movement across the rural–urban continuum in Britain over an 18-month period from March 2020 to August 2021. Our findings show an overall and sustained decline in population movement during periods of high stringency measures, with the most densely populated areas reporting the largest reductions. During these periods, we also find evidence of higher-than-average mobility from high-density population areas to low-density areas, lending some support to claims of large-scale population movements from large cities. Yet, we show that these trends were temporary. Overall mobility levels trended back to precoronavirus levels after the easing of nonpharmaceutical interventions. Following these interventions, we found a reduction in movement to low-density areas and a rise in mobility to high-density agglomerations. Overall, these findings reveal that while COVID-19 generated shock waves leading to temporary changes in the patterns of population movement in Britain, the resulting vibrations have not significantly reshaped the prevalent structures in the national pattern of population movement. As of 2021, internal population movements sit at an intermediate level between those observed pre- and early phases of the pandemic.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2637
Pages (from-to)1-15
Number of pages15
JournalPopulation, Space and Place
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 7 Dec 2022

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • Covid-19
  • Great Britain
  • Human mobility
  • Internal migration
  • Meta-Facebook
  • mobile phone location data
  • Urban exodus


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