May 9, 2023 - News

Salt Lake City tops the nation for growth in downtown activity

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

Salt Lake City's downtown is seeing nearly 40% more activity now than pre-pandemic, Axios' Alex Fitzpatrick and Alice Feng report.

  • That's according to mobile device connectivity data analyzed for 63 U.S. cities 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 home as much as possible.

  • But downtown SLC was 39% busier this winter than in winter 2019-2020, researchers found — by far, the strongest recovery in the nation.

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

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

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.

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.

Catch up quick: A similar analysis a year ago showed an even bigger rise in springtime downtown activity — so it will probably get busier now that our record-breaking winter has finally ended.

Reality check: While downtown activity is one indicator of a city's economic health, it doesn't paint a full picture on its own.

What's next: Many cities are experimenting with various efforts to rethink their downtown neighborhoods — including, most notably, office-to-residential building conversions, which are poised to skyrocket in the coming years.

  • Yet that idea is more cumbersome than it might seem, in part because the design and shape of some office buildings make them ill-suited for residential use.

The bottom line: Whether you feel like America's downtowns are once again thriving depends a lot on where you live.


Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Salt Lake City.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more

More Salt Lake City stories

No stories could be found

Salt Lake Citypostcard

Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Salt Lake City.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more