Boston's sluggish downtown recovery
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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