May 8, 2023 - Business

Boston's sluggish downtown recovery

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

Foot traffic around Boston’s Financial District is barely half of what it was pre-pandemic.

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

The big picture: Boston’s sluggish recovery is partly due to its heavy concentration of workers in financial services and tech — many of whom decamped elsewhere during the pandemic — and a shortage of affordable housing, especially downtown.

Why it matters: Downtowns became ghost towns during the height of the pandemic as people sought to "flatten the curve" by staying 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 9–5s.

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

  • Mayor Wu tried to bring crowds downtown last year with a series of block parties and has continued the trend with sports watch parties, beer gardens and other outdoor events.

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 areas of a given city with the highest employment density.

Worth noting: The Boston data in UToronto’s findings don’t reflect all downtown foot traffic.

  • UToronto’s data included two ZIP codes within Boston’s downtown area. The research offers a detailed look at cell phone activity in the Financial District — perhaps the hardest-hit neighborhood in terms of foot traffic — and the waterfront, but not much elsewhere.

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

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