Cities’ downtown cores are hollowing out, but small towns and suburbs tell a different story

People walk in Vancouver’s business district over the lunch hour on April 22. According to a new report, the city experienced a 48-per-cent decline in mobility compared with prepandemic timesJENNIFER GAUTHIER/Vancouver Freelancer

The downtowns of most major Canadian cities continue to face a substantial dip in foot traffic compared with prepandemic norms – but the opposite is true of smaller towns and suburbs within commutable distance of those cities, data from a new study show.

The results of the study, produced by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce’s Business Data Lab, suggests that almost three years into the pandemic, a new economic pattern is emerging in metropolitan areas across the country – a hollowing out of the central hubs of large cities owing largely to hybrid work, and growth in mobility in the outlying spokes of those cities.

“Canada’s biggest cities are significantly behind in terms of workers returning to the office. But we found that there’s been a substantial increase in activity in the downtown cores of towns within a commutable distance of these cities,” said Stephen Tapp, chief economist at the chamber.

The report, which also linked on data from Statistics Canada and the marketing and research firm Environics Analytics, measured the mobility of workers in more than 150 metropolitan areas and 55 downtowns across the country using cellphone data of commuting workers. The data essentially tracks how many people in a given geographical location left their homes and commuted to their offices.

Mobility, or worker foot traffic, in downtown Toronto was 46 per cent lower in September, 2022 – when most large white-collar workplaces began mandating return-to-office policies – compared with January, 2020. In Ottawa, it was 45 per cent lower over that same time frame. Vancouver experienced a 48-per-cent decline in mobility compared with prepandemic times, while Calgary saw a 42-per-cent decrease.

Meanwhile, the Ontario cities of Brampton, Barrie and Brantford – all within a two-hour commute from Toronto – saw a surge in mobility of roughly 30 per cent between January, 2020, and September, 2022. Smaller cities in proximity to Montreal and Quebec City, such as Trois-Rivières and Sherbrooke, also saw a substantial increase in foot traffic over the course of the pandemic.

Over all, 14 of 55 downtowns experienced increased mobility over the period and most of those downtowns were in small cities.

The data do not fully explain why the downtown core of a city like Barrie, for example, would see a surge in movement of people – if a remote worker who used to work at an office in Toronto now lives and works from home in Barrie, it stands for reason that that person would not leave their home to commute to downtown Barrie to work.

But according to Mr. Tapp, the pattern in the data could suggest a rise in the number of remote workers in a city like Barrie, which in turn has led to an increase in economic activity to service these workers.

“It could be that there are more people going into downtown Barrie now than prior to the pandemic because the city has grown, more services like restaurants and retail stores have emerged and workers are needed in those businesses,” he explained.

Montreal seemed to be an outlier with data indicating that the city’s downtown had almost recovered to prepandemic norms – compared with January, 2020, there was a decline of just 3.5 per cent in mobility.

Gatineau, a town whose economy relies largely on federal public servants, saw the biggest decline in mobility across 55 downtowns in Canada – a drop of almost 75 per cent.

The report also found that cities with a higher share of women have had slower recoveries in foot traffic, and cities with higher shares of commuters who use public transit to get to work have also had more muted recoveries.

Mr. Tapp said that if these mobility patterns were to stick, it could mean greater opportunities for businesses in smaller towns and increased local economic development.

“Where we have movement of people over time, you’ll have movement of businesses to serve the needs of those people.”

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