Aug 25, 2023 - COVID

Study shows downtown Phoenix foot traffic recovering well, but not fully since pandemic

Downtown Phoenix foot traffic recovery
Data: University of Toronto; Note: Seasons are March-May (spring), June-Aug. (summer), Sept.-Nov. (fall) and Dec.-Feb. (winter); Visitors determined by counting unique mobile phones in ZIP codes with high employee density; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

Downtown Phoenix foot traffic still lags behind its pre-pandemic levels, but its recovery is better than most other major North American cities.

State of play: From March to May, downtown Phoenix saw 72% of the foot traffic it had during that period in 2019, according to a study from the School of Cities at the University of Toronto.

  • The study's methodology used anonymized cell phone activity to determine the number of unique visitors to the downtown area.

Of note: Researchers used a rather expansive definition of what constitutes downtown Phoenix — they took in the area between Seventh Avenue and Seventh Street to the east and west, and from about Thomas Road, which is well north of downtown, and the Salt River, which is significantly to the south.

  • That takes in the 85003 and 85004 ZIP codes.

Yes, but: R.J. Price, chief growth officer for Downtown Phoenix Inc., told Axios Phoenix that his organization has some issues with the study's methodology and believes it undersells downtown's post-pandemic recovery.

  • Downtown added about 4,000 housing units and 27 restaurants from 2019-2023, according to data from Downtown Phoenix Inc.
  • Price's group uses more traditional boundaries for downtown Phoenix than the University of Toronto, ending at McDowell Road to the north and the warehouse district at Lincoln and Grant streets to the south.
  • "Downtown Phoenix has not only recovered from the pandemic; our levels are higher than they were in 2019," he said.

Why it matters: Downtowns are typically the beating economic heart of a city, funneling revenue into coffers via taxes and more, Axios' Alex Fitzpatrick and Kavya Beheraj report.

  • More fundamentally, they're the spiritual core of a given city. If a downtown is (or perceived to be) flailing, that tends to dictate the city's overall vibes.

The big picture: Phoenix had the 21st best recovery rate of the 62 U.S. and Canadian cities analyzed in the study.

  • At the top of the list was Salt Lake City with 139% of its pre-pandemic foot traffic.
  • Bakersfield and Fresno, California, and El Paso, Texas, were the only other cities to exceed the downtown foot traffic experienced before COVID-19.
  • At the bottom of the list was downtown San Francisco, which only had 32% of its pre-pandemic foot traffic.

Zoom in: Downtown Phoenix likely got a boost from the flurry of activity it's seen over the past few years.

  • Huge apartment buildings are sprouting up across downtown, bringing more residents who are likely to walk the area, and a lot of retail businesses have opened during that period, Price said.
  • The Phoenix Bioscience Core, a university-led biomedical complex, has attracted a number of people and businesses to the area over the past couple years.

Meanwhile, downtown Tucson saw 82% of its pre-pandemic foot traffic from March to May, giving it the 14th best recovery on the list.

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