Why Axis

Real-time economic data shows Canada frozen in time

A man crosses an empty street in downtown Montreal in April. The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes
article-aa

This article is a preview of The Logic’s exclusive journalism.

Get complimentary access to award-winning reporting to navigate these unprecedented times. Sign up now.

Traffic, energy usage, flights and restaurant reservations have plummeted, while the number of internet-connected devices has soared. To capture the state of Canada’s economy today, The Logic compiled real-time data that shows a country fundamentally transformed. 

Some of the country’s official economic statistics are three months out of date. The latest Statistics Canada GDP, trade, manufacturers’ sales and domestic aircraft itinerant numbers show slight increases for January, while railway carloading dipped. Since then, the S&P/TSX Composite has dropped 18 per cent and the country’s employment dropped by one million, bumping unemployment to 7.8 per cent. Earlier this week, the International Monetary Fund projected Canada’s economy will contract by 6.2 per cent this year, compared with its January forecast of a 1.8 per cent increase.

Talking Point

Traffic, energy usage, flights and restaurant reservations have plummeted, while the number of internet-connected devices has soared, according to an analysis by The Logic. The real-time data offers a glimpse into how Canada’s economy has been transformed by COVID-19, particularly as more traditional economic indicators such as GDP have yet to be reported.

Real-time data, however, tells an even more detailed story. Airplane departures from the country’s 10 busiest airports are down 84 per cent. In Ontario, between 1,000 to 2,000 megawatts less in energy is being used each daythe latter of which is the equivalent of the cities of Ottawa and London, Ont. suddenly not using any power. 

“There’s a fundamental and broad consensus amongst economic forecasters that Q2 is going to exhibit the biggest quarter-on-quarter drop in activity that we’ve ever recorded,” said Brett House, deputy chief economist at Scotiabank. “The real-time economic activity indicators that we’ve got—we’re seeing them broadly fall off a cliff.”

***

Toronto Pearson International Airport has seen a rapid decline in airplane departures, dropping 87 per cent between March 3 and April 13, from 597 departures in one day to 79. It’s one of four airports for which the federal government is allowing international flights, along with Montreal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Vancouver International and Calgary International. Other major airports have seen an even more precipitous drop. Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier is down to less than 20 flights a day. Toronto City Billy Bishop is down to less than five, and had six days in April with no departures at all. 

“Activity in the aviation industry is probably much more hit than any other. Nobody can travel. Nobody wants to travel,” Charles St-Arnaud, chief economist at Alberta Central, told The Logic. 

“This data gives us a good idea of how bad the situation is for the industry…. It gives us an idea of knowing how much less income they have, how much help they will need from the government.”

Evening rush-hour traffic has also dropped significantly in the 12 Canadian cities where TomTom, an Amsterdam-based satellite navigation firm, tracks road congestion, using the anonymized aggregate movements of over 600 million drivers worldwide. 

“If you look at today’s rush-hour peak for Toronto, you see that normally their congestion level would be 60 per cent. That means that on average, during rush hour, people spend 60 per cent extra time in their cars because of traffic congestion. Today, that’s only seven per cent,” said Gijs Peters, a data scientist at TomTom. 

“That is a very, very dramatic effect and a very strong significant drop in traffic congestion. And we’ve seen the same pattern for all the cities in Canada,” said Peters. 

Montreal appears to be one of the cities where cars got off the road most rapidly. Average congestion levels have been at 10 per cent or below since March 24, compared to their typical average of over 60 per cent. 

Vancouver currently has one of the highest traffic congestion rates, with its 5:00 p.m. rush hovering at around 20 per cent over the past three weeks, although that’s still at least a two-thirds drop from average levels. With the decline in traffic comes a rise in air quality in at least four cities, according to satellite image data published by the CBC.

As traffic declines, the number of internet-connected devices being used at home during the workday is soaring. In total, 9.64 million Canadians are now actively online during the workday, a 110 per cent increase from the typical 4.6 million pre COVID-19, according to Wi-Fi analytics firm Plume.

The Palo Alto-based company collects data on the percentage of computers and smartphones being used for more than six hours at a time between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. local time across seven European countries, seven Canadian cities and 14 U.S. municipalities. 

“The Canadian data is a little bit different than the U.S. data in that it started hitting the cities pretty consistently. And they all ramped quite quickly, and almost in the same kind of curves,” said Todd Grantham, chief marketing officer at Plume. 

In the U.S., Seattle and San Francisco saw an increase in internet-connected devices being used at home prior to other cities. 

Plume’s data comes from its clients, including internet service providers in Canada like Bell. All in, the firm has over 700 million devices on its cloud. It’s also looked at how people are using entertainment devices, like smart televisions, in addition to the data on laptop and phone use. 

“We saw the entertainment devices increase in their usage by quite a bit. But what’s really interesting is that computers are also being used much more now in the evening than they were before,” said Grantham. “I think because people are at home so much right now, the notion of weekends or workday is really breaking down. It’s kind of an ‘always on, but always partly off’ mentality.”

Internet-connected devices aren’t the only trend that’s relatively consistent nationwide. On March 10, the number of diners seated at restaurants in Canada dropped 18 per cent compared with the same day last year, according to data compiled by OpenTable. By March 20, the drop was down to 100 per cent, where it’s stayed ever since. Restaurants across Canada have been ordered to stop dine-in service to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The Toronto restaurant market shut down the fastest among the five cities for which OpenTable has data, reaching a 100 per cent drop on March 17, whereas Edmonton had some reservations as late as March 23. 

Energy usage in Ontario is also down, according to the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO), the Crown corporation operating the electricity market in the province.

“We’ve seen about 80 per cent of commercial demand being affected by the non-essential business closures,” said Terry Young, vice-president of policy, engagement and innovation. While residential energy demand has increased with more people working from home overall, there’s been a 1,000- to 2,000-megawatt daily reduction in how much energy is being used in the province.

“So a 2,000-megawatt drop, from our perspective in Ontario, is really around the demand for two cities the size of, say, Ottawa and London, Ont. So that’s very much a noticeable difference,” said Young. 

There’s also been a shift in the times of day when the most energy is used. There’s less of a peak around morning rush hour, as fewer people are getting up early to start their commute, and the peaks later in the day are smaller.

Canadians are taking public transit much less often, according to data released by Apple which aggregates changes in search volume for directions on its Maps app. Nationwide, transit searches were down 85 per cent between January 13 and April 12, while driving and walking paths fell 65 per cent and 59 per cent, respectively. Torontonians’ activity dropped the most of the seven Canadian cities listed, with walking searches down 71 per cent and transit down 85 per cent.

There are a few other nearly real-time metrics for the state of Canada’s economy today. Statistics Canada recently released labour-force data, which showed that the number of people employed in Canada fell by 1.01 million in March. Worse may be yet to come, though, as many job losses were reported in the last 10 days of the month after StatCan had surveyed households. The Logic’s ongoing analysis of Canada’s innovation economy shows 86 companies had announced 150,566 job losses since March 17. The number of job postings has declined 43 per cent compared with last year, while searches for remote jobs, as well as those for grocers, Walmart and Amazon, are all soaring, according to job search firm Indeed. 

Methodology

Airplane departure data comes from FlightRadar24, which lists the number of tracked flights from 247 airports in Canada. Data from the 10 busiest airports was extracted. The traffic congestion chart looks at evening rush hour in the 12 Canadian cities tracked by TomTom. That’s 5:00 p.m. local time in Vancouver, Toronto, Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo and 4:00 p.m. local time in the other eight cities. The internet-connected devices data is from Plume, which looks at the percentage of smartphones and laptops at home between 9:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. local time in seven Canadian cities. Restaurant reservation data is from OpenTable; it shows year-over-year percentage comparisons by day for the number of seated diners at restaurants nationwide, as well as in Canadian cities and provinces where OpenTable has over 50 restaurants. Energy usage data is from Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator and shows Ontario demand at 6 p.m. each day. Apple Maps data shows the relative volume of direction requests for driving, walking and transit on a given day compared with the baseline volume of January 13.

With official data lagging, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) is polling its members weekly on the impacts of COVID-19. In the most recent edition released April 13, 32 per cent of businesses that have closed are unsure if they’ll be able to reopen. CFIB’s April 8 release showed that small-business sentiment was at 37.7, below the lowest points reached in both the 2008 and 1990 recessions. 

“The CFIB’s data showed a massive shift in sentiment. I think it was the largest ever in one month,” said Scotiabank’s House. “All of the high-frequency data that we’re looking at show what is an unprecedented physical and economic stop to activity in Canada.”

With files from Murad Hemmadi

***

Our reporting team is working tirelessly around the clock to deliver the very latest information on the COVID-19 crisis. If you like our journalism, please consider subscribing. You can get a subscription today for more than $100 off your first year.