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How Chicago's pandemic recovery compares to other cities?

Chicago cellphone activity signals downtown's slow recovery

By Alice Feng, Monica Eng, Alex Fitzpatrick, Axios News

Chicago's downtown activity has returned to 57% of its pre-pandemic rates, according to 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 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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