May 18, 2023 - News

Downtown D.C. foot traffic is up, according to cellphone data

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

While the future of downtown D.C. remains in flux, foot traffic is increasing — at least according to cellphone data.

  • New mobile phone activity downtown was recorded at 70% of what it was pre-pandemic, according to data analyzed by researchers at the University of Toronto's School of Cities.

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, Axios' Alex Fitzpatrick and Alice Feng report.

  • Of note: For this analysis, "downtown" is defined as areas of a given city with the highest employment density.

The big picture: 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 it ushered in means fewer people visiting restaurants, bars, and shops downtown.

By the numbers: Some places are exceeding pre-pandemic times, with downtown Salt Lake City at 139% mobile activity. Others including San Francisco (32%) and St. Louis (38%) have struggled to recover.

What we’re watching: Some local businesses and political forces are pressuring the White House to bring back more federal workers to the office, Cuneyt writes.

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

  • The lure of better springtime weather, meanwhile, might convince more people to head back into the city — to enjoy dinner and drinks al fresco, for instance.
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