Apr 25, 2024 - Economy

Visitors are returning to most — but not all — of America's downtowns

Change in downtown visitor activity levels from March 2023 to February 2024
Data: University of Toronto; Note: Downtown defined as the central location with the highest concentration of employment in each metro area; Chart: Alice Feng/Axios

Most American downtowns saw a bump in visitor activity between March 2023 and February 2024, per new University of Toronto data.

Why it matters: The updated figures are one way to understand which cities are recovering and which are still struggling after the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

How it works: Researchers at the University of Toronto's School of Cities are using anonymized mobile device location data to estimate visitor activity in the downtown areas of dozens of North American cities.

  • They define "downtown" as the location in each metro area with the highest job concentration.

The big picture: By and large, downtowns are recovering nicely — if slowly.

  • "Fifty downtowns are in an upward trajectory, while just 14 are trending downwards," per the researchers' latest update, which counts some Canadian cities.

Between the lines: Many of the cities with relatively high recovery rates over this latest period had struggled in past years.

  • "In other words, their recovery may now be converging with the downtowns that largely recovered in 2023," the researchers write.

Zoom in: Cities tended to benefit from a summertime activity bump that faded as colder temperatures arrived this past winter.

  • That said, some stayed above their March 2023 baseline even into the fall and winter months, "suggesting gradual recovery," per the researchers.
  • Others, however, fell below their March figures — a sign of "stagnating recovery."

Winners: Minneapolis (+45.3% change in visitors between March 2023 and February 2024), Chicago (+35.5%) and Louisville (+32.5%).

Losers: San Francisco (-21.6%), San Antonio (-17.5%) and Fort Worth (-9.4%).

💬 Our thought bubble: While city officials, business leaders and so on would no doubt prefer to have a vibrant city center, the pandemic sparked lots of interesting and valuable activity in many cities' outer neighborhoods.

The bottom line: It'll take more time for America's cities to fully recover — and some may never get back to their pre-pandemic figures.

  • But most of them are at least on the right path.
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