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Has Chicago come back? Percent former business activity?

Downtown's halfway return



Data: University of Toronto; Chart: Alice Feng/Axios

Chicago's downtown activity has returned to 57% of its pre-pandemic rates, Axios' Alex Fitzpatrick and Alice Feng report.


That's based on anonymized mobile device data analyzed by University of Toronto researchers.


Why it matters: Even as the pandemic ebbs, remote and hybrid work remain strong in many big cities like Chicago, dealing a blow to commercial real estate owners, as well as to downtown restaurants, bars and shops that rely on commuters.


Zoom in: Chicago's figures are mostly in line with the slow rebound in office foot traffic tracked by real estate data firm Placer.ai late last year.


The reduced foot traffic means a loss of about $2,387 in downtown spending per employee per year, according to a February report from University of Chicago researchers and others.

The big picture: Downtown activity has returned to — or even exceeded — pre-pandemic rates in a handful of U.S. cities, as of February 2023. These include:


Salt Lake City; Bakersfield and Fresno, California; and Columbus, Ohio.

Meanwhile: San Francisco, St. Louis, and Portland, Oregon, have seen a return, based on mobile device use, of less than 40%.


Between the lines: San Francisco's sluggish recovery is driven in part by its heavy concentration of tech workers — many of whom decamped elsewhere amid the pandemic — as well as a shortage of affordable housing.


In New York City, meanwhile, mobile use is back to 75% of pre-pandemic downtown activity, per the latest data.


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 the area of a given city with the highest employment density.


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