May 11, 2023 - Business

Chicago cellphone activity signals downtown's slow recovery

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

Chicago's downtown activity has returned to 57% of its pre-pandemic rates, according to anonymized mobile device data analyzed by University of Toronto researchers.

Why it matters: Even as the pandemic ebbs, remote and hybrid work remain strong in many big cities like Chicago, dealing a blow to commercial real estate owners, as well as to downtown restaurants, bars and shops that rely on commuters.

Zoom in: Chicago's figures are mostly in line with the slow rebound in office foot traffic tracked by real estate data firm Placer.ai late last year.

  • The reduced foot traffic means a loss of about $2,387 in downtown spending per employee per year, according to a February report from University of Chicago researchers and others.

The big picture: Downtown activity has returned to — or even exceeded — pre-pandemic rates in a handful of U.S. cities, as of February 2023. These include:

  • Salt Lake City; Bakersfield and Fresno, California; and Columbus, Ohio.

Meanwhile: San Francisco, St. Louis, and Portland, Oregon, have seen a return, based on mobile device use, of less than 40%.

Between the lines: San Francisco's sluggish recovery is driven in part by its heavy concentration of tech workers — many of whom decamped elsewhere amid the pandemic — as well as a shortage of affordable housing.

  • In New York City, meanwhile, mobile use is back to 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 area of a given city with the highest employment density.

What we're watching: In late March, Chicago selected three proposals aimed at turning downtown office space into mixed-use residential buildings as part of its LaSalle Street Reimagined plan.

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