May 15, 2023 - News

Downtown Raleigh sees half the cell phone activity as pre-COVID

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

Mobile device activity in downtown Raleigh remains below 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: Downtowns became ghost towns during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic as people sought to "flatten the curve" by staying at home as much as possible.

  • Even as the pandemic ebbs, the era of remote and hybrid work continues to keep many away from office clusters in downtown.
  • That has big implications for downtown economies, which have historically relied on commuting workers who spend money before, during and after their daily 9-5s.

In Raleigh, economic developers have closely tracked foot traffic and sought to find ways to reinvigorate the parts of downtown most reliant on office workers.

Zoom out: Downtown activity has returned to — or even exceeded — pre-pandemic rates in a handful of U.S. cities, but most are still struggling to attract the foot traffic they once did.

  • By the numbers: Salt Lake City (139%); Bakersfield, California (118%) and Fresno, California (115%) had among the country's highest post-pandemic downtown recovery rates as of February (the most recent data available), as measured by estimated foot traffic.
  • San Francisco (32%), St. Louis (38%) and Portland, Oregon (40%) had among the lowest.

Zoom in: San Francisco's sluggish recovery is due at least in part to its heavy concentration of tech workers — many of whom decamped elsewhere amid the pandemic.

  • Many of downtown Raleigh's largest employers are also tech companies that have gone hybrid, like Red Hat, or downsized, like Citrix.
  • Raleigh ranks among the metro areas with the largest share of remote workers.

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 areas of a given city with the highest employment density.
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