Foot traffic up in Canadian downtowns, but office traffic remains depressed

12 October 2022 2 min. read
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Foot traffic in urban centers has been rebounding since the dark days of the pandemic, but office traffic remains far off from its pre-pandemic height, according to data from Avison Young’s Vitality Index.

The commercial real estate firm’s recently refreshed index tracks weekly foot traffic patterns across 52 markets in North America. The interactive dashboard allows users to isolate data in various cities by suburban vs urban markets, days of the week, office industries, and building classifications.

The Vitality Index is powered by data from Orbital Insight, a geospatial analytics company, which uses anonymized smartphone pings to estimate foot traffic in strategic locations.

Though a return to pre-pandemic office occupancy remains a steep climb, the index found a steady increase of activity in major North American markets since Labour Day weekend 2022. Compared to the week of September 5, average foot traffic increased by 4.1% in the US and 8.5% in Canada in the week of September 19.

Total visitor volumes as of the week of September 19, 2022 are 84% relative to the week of March 2, 2020

Traffic to flexible office providers has been superior to all other office industries throughout the pandemic, measuring at 79.1% of pre-pandemic volume in the week of September 19. All other office industries are at just 45.2% of traffic compared to pre-pandemic.

“With the pandemic, the whole world shifted its relationship to work and the physical office,” said Sheila Botting, Avison Young’s president of professional services for the Americas. “Different groups whether that’s occupier or investor or employee have varying viewpoints as to how this will play out. But The Vitality Index is providing a single source of truth.”

Overall, average foot traffic is 19% lower in US cities than in the week prior to the March 2020 lockdown, while in Canada it is up 4%.

Delving into the numbers for Canadian cities, we can see this boost is at least partially attributable to seasonality. Edmonton foot traffic is up 51% in the week of September 19 compared to March 2, 2020. Edmonton, home of the Oilers and horrifying winters, is still a frigid hellscape in early March; September, in contrast, is positively balmy. The foot traffic differential is a reflection of that. Since there is no data from September 2019, it’s harder to peg a more meaningful number.

Other noted cold places such as Calgary and Ottawa saw increases of 23% and 20%, respectively.

Other sectors on upswing

Offices are obviously not the only draw to cities or urban centres, however, so increasing foot traffic also reflects a rebound in visitors to retail shops, sporting events, and other leisure activities.

Traffic to retail corridors is down just 18.9% versus to pre-pandemic, with more recovery on weekends than on weekdays – likely owing to lower weekday-bound office traffic. Hospitality, recreation, and tourism sectors have nearly returned to pre-pandemic visitor levels, according to the index.

“Social downtowns are back, but working downtowns are still struggling to recover,” said Julian Adams, Avison Young’s principal, director, data science.