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Downtown Travel Has Not Recovered from COVID-19, Data Shows

A new report by INRIX shows that traffic and transit activity is still down in the nation’s largest cities when compared to pre-2020 levels, a sustained byproduct of remote work arrangements.

Motion blur of pedestrians, cyclists and a vehicle on the streets of New York City at sunrise.
Downtown activity in major cities continues to lag behind pre-COVID-19 days, perhaps the most lasting side effect of remote work.

A study of near real-time traffic activity in downtown areas indicates that most of the largest U.S. cities have yet to return to pre-2020 levels. The report and analysis, which looked at 20 downtown districts, was conducted by INRIX, a traffic and transportation technology firm.
“It’s obvious that some downtowns are doing better than others, in terms of getting traffic back,” said Bob Pishue, a transportation analyst at INRIX, and author of the 2023 INRIX “Return to the Office” Report. Pishue was quick to note traffic activity — from both private cars and public transit — is but one metric to gauge the health of downtown districts.

That said, traffic activity is “a very good proxy,” said Pishue.

San Francisco, a longtime epicenter of the tech and financial worlds, remains one of the most lagging downtowns, a sign of just how intensely (and permanently) the city’s workers transitioned to remote work during the pandemic. Traffic activity in San Francisco is still down 41 percent below 2019 levels, according to the report.

While New York City, the most job-dense downtown, is the outlier. Traffic activity in the Big Apple is only five percent below 2019 levels. New York City is also notable for having a variety of job types, beyond just the information, finance and professional services sectors — known as IFPS at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. These sectors, plentiful in cities like San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C., are some of the most adaptable to a work-from-anywhere posture.

That abrupt transition left office space uncomfortably dark, and downtowns eerily quiet. Some of the effects of this transition has been, yes, reduced greenhouse gas emissions from car travel and less time spent in traffic, but also depressed downtown economies as restaurants, shops and other services struggle. Public transit has also failed to recover with ridership still down 45 percent in San Francisco; 43 percent in Chicago; 35 percent in Washington, D.C.; and 28 percent in New York.

The shift will force policymakers and business leaders to rethink cities and aim to make them more diverse in terms of economy, residents, land uses and other areas.

"Downtowns that are primarily office are having the hardest time, taking the longest to recover. You see this across the country,” said Nico Larco, director of the Urbanism Next Center at the University of Oregon, in some of his opening remarks at the Urbanism Next Conference in late April.

Downtowns that are mixed use are fairing “much better,” he added.

It would not hurt to start thinking more creatively about how to imagine downtowns and office space, said Sucharita Kodali, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, speaking at the conference.

Landlords should think in terms of broadening their tenant base, said Kodali, offering examples like call centers, churches or charter schools.

“Most of our cities probably stand to encourage more of a startup culture,” said Kodali.

Virtually all cities — large and small — have long-range plans, looking out 20 or 40 years into the future, said Pishue, from INRIX. But there’s also a need for shorter visions, and efforts to be more nimble.

“Thirty-year plans are good. You have to have a 30-year plan. But what about like a five-year plan that is, maybe, a little more flexible. Because that is the key going forward — flexibility,” said Pishue. Which is where near real-time data like the INRIX traffic report can come into play, as an aid to inform some of the more immediate decisions.

“Government statistics are really good. But they’re almost always lagging,” said Pishue. “Like four months or five months, and say, what’s the barometer looking like for downtowns?”

One of the report’s data points looks at traffic activity from December 2022 to May 2023, offering the most recent window into downtown recovery. Portland, Ore., posted a 12 percent increase in trips into downtown, while New York City showed a 13 percent increase, and a 15 percent increase in Phoenix. However, many cities are either stagnant, or backsliding. Trips into Chicago and Seattle are both down one percent during this period. Washington, D.C., posted a two percent decline and Denver showed a four percent decline.

Analysts like Pishue and other urbanists continue to return to the idea of diversification in downtowns as a bulwark against downward trends. INRIX officials point to Nashville, Tenn., with its vibrant nightlife as a force working in tandem with daytime office traffic.

“I think that the diversification of downtown is really important,” he noted. “At least as far as the transportation data shows us, people are going into downtown Nashville."

“Downtown is really important. It has a magnifier effect,” said Pishue. “And you just can’t dismiss it. A strong downtown means a strong region.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.