May 8, 2023 - COVID

Downtown Detroit still less active than pre-COVID

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

Recorded cell phone activity in downtown Detroit is still just half what it was pre-pandemic, Axios' Alex Fitzpatrick and Alice Feng report.

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

Why it matters: Even as the pandemic ebbs, the era of remote and hybrid work it ushered in means fewer people are visiting restaurants, bars and shops.

  • The effects have been felt in our commuter-heavy downtown, though large-scale events and entertainment have brought visitors in droves and some companies like GM are bringing employees back to the office.

The big picture: Downtown activity has returned to — or even exceeded — pre-pandemic rates in a handful of U.S. cities, but most are still struggling.

  • In Detroit, the average weekly number of mobile devices detected from December 2022-February 2023 was 52% of the amount measured in the same period from 2019-20.

By the numbers: Salt Lake City (139%) and Bakersfield, California (118%) had among the country's highest post-pandemic downtown recovery rates as of February, the most recent data available.

  • San Francisco (32%) and St. Louis (38%) had among the lowest.

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.

Zoom in: We averaged 34,300 daily downtown workers last month, per Downtown Detroit Partnership (DDP) data. That number is increasing but is still just about half of April 2019's 67,400.

  • But when the DDP measures daily visitors, excluding residents and workers, we're closer to catching up: 79,600 last month compared to 106,300 in April 2019.

What they're saying: "My guess is we'll probably even out someplace around 70% of that work population coming back," DDP CEO Eric Larson said on Detroit Public TV early this year.

  • But "the residential demand outstrips our supply by a lot. I mean, we are virtually 100% leased in the downtown," he said.

Details: Office-to-residential building conversions are poised to skyrocket in the coming years as cities endeavor to rethink the composition of their cores.


Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Detroit.

More Detroit stories