There’s no getting around it — downtown Seattle is in rough shape.

But Seattle is hardly the only city facing these challenges. And according to a new study that looks at how the pandemic has affected the downtowns of 62 U.S. and Canadian cities, things here could be worse — just look at Portland and San Francisco.

This new study, which comes from the Urban Displacement Project, a research initiative at the University of California Berkeley and the University of Toronto, takes a novel approach. Most research attempting to measure the vitality of urban centers since the start of the pandemic has looked at factors like the change in office vacancy rates, public transportation ridership, or retail spending. Instead, this new study looked at smartphone data.

Researchers analyzed data from 18 million smartphone visits to downtown points of interest, comparing current levels of activity (the most recent data covers March through May of this year) with the pre-pandemic period (2019). Points of interest include many places someone might visit — restaurants, retail shops, grocery stores and so on.

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As of this spring, smartphone activity in downtown Seattle was at 52% of its 2019 levels. That’s a huge decline, to be sure, but it’s far from the worst. Among the 62 cities in the study, Seattle ranked 40th in terms of recovery.

Remote work has largely emptied downtown streets of workers, while concerns around visible homelessness and crime have been on the rise. And downtown’s brick-and-mortar retail is increasingly losing out to online shopping. The neighborhood just took another blow when the Amazon Go store on Fourth Avenue closed due to safety concerns.


But here’s a positive sign: This spring was the first time since the pandemic began that downtown Seattle’s smartphone activity passed 50% of 2019 levels. The study shows the lowest point was in summer of 2020, when downtown activity was at just 37%.

I’ve been doing my part to help downtown Seattle’s numbers. Since it opened in January, I’ve done my grocery shopping at the new PCC on Fourth Avenue — and this is purely anecdotal, but I have noticed the store has been more crowded recently.

Among the 62 cities in the study, San Francisco came in dead last, with smartphone visits to downtown points of interest at just 31% of pre-pandemic levels. Portland’s downtown was third from the bottom, at 41%. (Cleveland ranked as the second least-recovered downtown, at 36%.)

In four of the 62 downtowns, smartphone activity was actually higher this spring than it was before the pandemic. Salt Lake City was No. 1, at 155% of pre-pandemic levels. The other three downtowns exceeding their 2019 performance were Bakersfield, California; Columbus, Ohio; and Fresno, California.

The study showed Southern cities were the first to bounce back, but now we’re seeing recovery in most cities across the country. Also, downtowns located in mid-sized metro areas have tended to recover better than downtowns in major metro areas, like Seattle.

Even so, some larger cities have recovered quite well, and significantly better than Seattle. For example, smartphone activity in Baltimore was at 91% of pre-pandemic levels, while San Diego reached 89% and New York hit 78%.


The study examined the role that 43 employment and socioeconomic variables have played in downtown recoveries.

A couple factors stood out in terms of their effect on downtown recovery, says Karen Chapple, director of the Urban Displacement Project. Commuting was one of them, with shorter average commutes and higher levels of commuting by car leading to better recoveries.

“More single-family homes and lower employment densities downtown help as well,” she said.

The study found the rise of remote work is one of the main stumbling blocks to downtown recovery. That makes sense. Without all those workers in the office to bolster the downtown daytime population, recovery will suffer.

The study also found that downtowns with more diverse economies have bounced back more quickly.

Seattle, Portland and San Francisco all have high concentrations of employment sectors that support remote work, such as tech and other professional fields.

San Francisco, in particular, is lagging so badly precisely because it’s downtown employment is overspecialized in professional, scientific, and technical services. For example, just 2% of downtown jobs in San Francisco are in health care and social assistance, compared with 14% in Seattle. And arts, entertainment and recreation jobs in downtown San Francisco are at half of Seattle’s levels.