May 9, 2023 - News

Downtown Atlanta sees half the cell phone activity as pre-COVID

Mobile device activity in select downtown areas compared to pre-pandemic levels
Data: University of Toronto; Chart: Alice Feng/Axios

Downtown activity is roughly half of pre-pandemic rates in Atlanta, Axios' Alex Fitzpatrick and Alice Feng report.

  • That's according to anonymized mobile device connectivity data analyzed by researchers at the University of Toronto's School of Cities.

Why it matters: Downtowns, including Atlanta's, became ghost towns during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic as people sought to "flatten the curve" by staying at home as much as possible.

  • Even as the pandemic ebbs, the era of remote and hybrid work it ushered in means fewer people visiting restaurants, bars and shops.
  • That has big implications for downtown economies, which have historically relied on commuting workers who spend money before, during and after their daily 9 to 5s.

Zoom out: Downtown activity has returned to — or even exceeded — pre-pandemic rates in a handful of U.S. cities, but most are still struggling to attract the foot traffic they once did.

Zoom in: Gauging return-to-work trends in Atlanta remains difficult. Placer.ai's analysis of foot traffic in office buildings shows Atlanta workers have settled into a mix of working from home and going into the office.

By the numbers: Salt Lake City (139%); Bakersfield, California (118%) and Fresno, California (115%) have among the country's highest post-pandemic downtown recovery rates as of December 2022–February 2023.

  • San Francisco (32%), St. Louis (38%) and Portland, Oregon (40%) have among the lowest.

In the weeds: San Francisco's sluggish recovery is due at least in part to its heavy concentration of tech workers who decamped elsewhere amid the pandemic and a shortage of affordable housing.

  • It's a similar story in New York City, though to a less extreme extent — the Big Apple is at 75% of pre-pandemic downtown activity, per the latest data.

How it works: The researchers essentially treated smartphones and other mobile devices as a proxy for their owners — if a device pings a nearby cell tower, it's a good bet that's where the device's owner is.

Of note: For this analysis, "downtown" is defined as the dense area framed by Emory Midtown, the Downtown Connector, I-20 and the Georgia World Congress Center.

Yes, but: Businesses and political leaders are increasingly trying to curtail remote and hybrid work, which could boost downtown recovery levels.

Reality check: Downtown activity is just one indicator of a city's economic health.

  • The lure of better, springtime weather, meanwhile, might convince more people to head back into the city — to enjoy dinner and drinks al fresco, for instance.

What's next: Central Atlanta Progress is commissioning a study exploring how to convert old office buildings into residential units to make better use of dead space.

  • Yet that idea is more cumbersome than it might seem, in part because the design and shape of some office buildings make them ill-suited for residential use.
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