May 23, 2023 - News

Downtown foot traffic still sluggish, according to cellphone activity

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

Philly’s downtown activity has returned to roughly half its pre-pandemic rates, 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, remote and hybrid work remain strong around big cities like Philly, dealing a blow to downtown restaurants, bars and shops that rely on commuters and tourists.

Zoom in: Pedestrian foot traffic downtown was trending up last month, but the number of office workers in Center City was at 56% compared to before the pandemic, per a recent report from the Center City District.

  • SEPTA usage is also struggling, with bus ridership at 71% and Regional Rail at 56% of pre-pandemic levels, per the transit agency’s website.
  • Plus: The Philly metro area saw available office space climb to 15% in the first quarter of this year, up from the same time in 2020.

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 of 40% or less.

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.
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