May 4, 2023 - Business

Downtown still recovering from pandemic

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

Cellphone use in downtown Austin is about half of what it was pre-pandemic.

The big picture: It's the latest sign of how the core part of the city remains a lighter version of itself, Axios' Alex Fitzpatrick and Alice Feng report.

Details: The new data is according to anonymized mobile device connectivity data analyzed by researchers at the University of Toronto's School of Cities.

Why it matters: Downtowns 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 nine-to-fives.

How it works: The researchers 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.

Zoom in: Downtown office occupancy has trailed pre-pandemic levels in Austin.

Yes, but: Most cities are still struggling to attract the foot traffic they once did, but businesses and political leaders are increasingly trying to curtail remote and hybrid work, which could boost downtown recovery levels.

Reality check: While downtown activity is one indicator of a city's economic health, it doesn't paint a full picture on its own.


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