Aug 4, 2023 - News

How downtown Boston's pandemic recovery is going

Downtown Boston foot traffic recovery
Data: University of Toronto; Note: Seasons are March-May (spring), June-August (summer), September-November (fall) and December-February (winter); Visitors determined by counting unique mobile phones in ZIP codes with high employee density; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

Foot traffic is rebounding unevenly in different parts of Boston's downtown, according to two studies of where people are going.

What's happening: Foot traffic in the two zip codes that make up the city's Financial District is at 47.8% of pre-pandemic 2019 levels, according to mobile phone data analyzed by University of Toronto researchers.

  • That means activity in the area has decreased this year compared to last — and was actually higher in the summer of 2021, Axios' Alex Fitzpatrick and Kavya Beheraj report.

Yes, but: Foot traffic sensors placed in areas more dedicated to tourism, retail, restaurants and entertainment — Downtown Crossing, the Theater District and the Ladder District — show improvements.

Why it matters: Downtown hasn't been able to recover the activity levels it saw pre-pandemic, according to both sets of data, but areas less affected by remote work are on the upswing.

Details: 14 sensors between Tremont Street, Congress Street and Essex Street show foot traffic levels comparable with last July, Downtown Boston Business Improvement District president Michael Nichols told Axios.

  • But that was the first plateau after year-over-year growth in activity since 2021.

Zoom out: Boosting downtown is top of mind for City Hall right now. Officials just rolled out one of the boldest post-pandemic revival plans yet, offering tax breaks of up to a staggering 75% to developers who transform office space into residential housing.

Downtown foot traffic recovery, spring 2023

The big picture: Several U.S. cities with diverse downtowns — meaning, a healthy mixture of office space, housing, attractions and so on — have nearly returned to, or even exceeded, their pre-pandemic foot traffic rates.

  • San Diego is at 88% of its pre-pandemic foot traffic. And Salt Lake City's post-pandemic foot traffic rate — nearly 140% — is particularly remarkable.
  • But downtowns dedicated to office work are still struggling to recover in the remote work era. New York is at 67% of pre-pandemic foot trafficking financial areas, and San Francisco is at 31.9%.

What's next: Nichols expects this fall's foot-traffic sensor readings to come in around 20% higher than last year's. He's heartened that large employers like law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges have put plans in place to return workers to offices soon.

Of note: The study of the Financial District is based on anonymized mobile phone activity analyzed by the School of Cities at the University of Toronto (read about their methodology here.)

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