Downtown foot traffic still 46% lower than before pandemic

Foot traffic in downtown Toronto has continued to fall significantly since pre-pandemic norms in 2020, as hybrid work persists and fewer residents travel to work downtown, a new study has found.

Despite most workplaces in the city’s financial district mandating return-to-office policies, mobility — or worker foot traffic — in the downtown core was 46 per cent lower in September 2022 than it was in January 2020, a study on workplace mobility trends by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce’s Business Data Lab found.

“New mobility data reveal significant local variation in the return to workplaces. We’re seeing a hollowing out of the country’s downtown cores. The central hubs of Canada’s biggest cities are shrinking,” said Stephen Tapp, chief economist at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, in a news release.

Toronto is not the only major Canadian city experiencing a steep drop in foot traffic. Vancouver saw a 48 per cent decrease compared to pre-pandemic periods while Ottawa saw a 45 per cent drop.

Meanwhile, the study found that smaller bedroom communities benefited from an increase in foot traffic. Barrie, Brampton and Brantford all saw a jump of about 30 per cent over the same period as fewer Canadians commuted to work.

The trend is consistent with a pandemic-induced migration away from busy downtown centers in favor of not so densely populated locations, the study says.

In total, 14 out of 55 downtown cores saw an uptick in mobility over the same period and most of these are located in small cities.

This does not mean Toronto’s downtown is doomed, said Lindsay Broadhead, senior vice-president at the Toronto Region Board of Trade.

“We’re still in transition and this is not the end,” Broadhead said. “Toronto’s downtown core has a disproportionate representation of employees who work in industries that allow for remote working like banking and insurance. There’s just more desk work which uniquely thrived during the pandemic.”

Toronto is unique in that residents live in the downtown core. So even if they’re not going into work in person, they’re still using services in a way “other urban centers aren’t,” Broadhead said.

“This is where people live, we have sports and entertainment, the leisure industry is back with a vengeance, there’s Billy Bishop airport. We have different draws to our downtown core. I don’t think we can look at our downtown space in Toronto strictly through the lens of work.”

Karen Chapple, director of the School of Cities, which looks at urban challenges, at the University of Toronto, agrees with Broadhead, saying that while it’s a long road to recovery, the city will pick itself back up.

“Gradually employers will start cracking down and more people will start coming in. It won’t be minus 46 per cent foot traffic forever. It will move up but it might take some time,” Chapple said.

“When a great city like Toronto has a shock to downtown, it has always come back because it’s the center of one of the world’s great global cities,” she said.

“It has the bones of a great transit system, there’s a great waterfront, a lot of tourist uses — it just needs to fortify that and this might take a few years.”

Broadhead and Chapple said that overtime the city will need to reimagine the way it uses its space to attract people as hybrid work becomes the new norm.

“What we need is a reimaging of how the downtown working space is set up so that it incorporates industry that is more heavily weighted on in-person work,” Broadhead said.

Chapple agrees.

“Toronto is going to have to look at different economic sectors to help bail it out,” she said. “The city needs to rethink the economy to attract people for a variety of different reasons rather than a nine to five work pattern.”


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