Nov 3, 2023 - News

Downtown San Francisco's recovery is better than we thought

Downtown foot traffic recovery, spring 2023
Data: University of Toronto; Note: Downtown defined as the central location with the highest concentration of employment in each metro area; Chart: Axios Visuals

San Francisco's downtown recovery ranks higher than before, but it's still nothing to brag about.

The big picture: San Francisco's rank among major U.S. cities changed from 52 to 38 — with a 67.3% recovery rate — following a methodology shift by University of Toronto researchers tracking how cities are emerging from the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • That's based on the number of downtown visitors in March through mid-June 2023, as compared to the same period in 2019.
  • Most crucially, the researchers changed their definition of "downtown." They used to define it by ZIP codes with the highest job density, but now do so by broader areas with a high concentration of jobs.
  • They also shifted from using two location data sources to one and looked at a slightly more current time frame as compared to their last update in August.(These analyses are based on anonymized mobile device location data.)

Zoom in: San Francisco's downtown now includes more areas of SoMa, Union Square and part of Chinatown, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

  • Meanwhile, the recent analysis took out part of the Embarcadero.

What they're saying: School of Cities director and project leader Karen Chapple says the decision to change the definition of "downtown" came after pushback from some cities and business associations.

  • "We've looked at cities' own definitions of downtown, but those boundaries are historic and don't reflect where the current buildings are, or they're political, or they've been drawn to match census boundaries," Chapple tells Axios. "So they have the same flaws as using ZIP codes."
  • "We decided to go with job densities ... figuring that's what people really care about — these are the hearts of our regions and of our cities."

What's next: San Francisco's downtown will be front and center during the upcoming Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

  • Ahead of the event, which is expected to bring in more than 20,000 people, the city launched a $4 million ad campaign in an attempt to rebrand the city.
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