Activity in downtown Ottawa at 51 per cent of pre-pandemic levels in the fall, study finds

Workers and tourists are slowly returning to downtown Ottawa, but a new study suggests activity remains at approximately half of pre-pandemic levels nearly three years after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A study by the University of Toronto School of Cities and University of California, Berkeley finds activity in downtown Ottawa was 51 per cent of pre-pandemic levels in the fall. That’s up from 48 per cent between March and May 2022.

According to the study, called “Death of Downtown?” Ottawa ranks 45th out of 62 cities in Canada and the United States for activity in the downtown core in the September to November period, and fifth out of 10 Canadian cities.

The study measures the level of economic and social activity in a downtown core using signals from cellphone towers. To measure the level of economic and social activity, researchers aggregated mobile phone trajectory data documenting the number of visits to places of interest. 

Downtown Ottawa businesses are hoping for a boost this winter as federal civil servants begin to return to the office. As of Jan. 16, federal government employees are required to work two-to-three days a week in the office after two-and-a-half years of working from home.

Salt Lake City, Utah, has the highest return to the downtown of the 62 cities surveyed, at 135 per cent, followed by Bakersfield, California and Fresno, California.

San Francisco has the lowest return to the downtown, at 31 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.

“This research shows the downtowns throughout North America are recovering more slowly than the rest of the city, and that a distinct set of downtowns continue to struggle to return to pre-pandemic levels,” the survey says, adding it may be time to “reinvent downtown” in large metro cities.

Researchers say factors “positively influencing recovery rates for downtowns” in the fall included lower commute times and the presence of economic sectors such as accommodation, food, health care and construction.

“To survive in the new era of remote work, downtowns will need to diversify their economic activity and land uses.”

In Canada, London, Ont. has seen the highest rate of return to downtown in the country, with activity at 79 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. Halifax is second at 65 per cent, followed by Toronto at 53 per cent, Edmonton at 52 per cent and Quebec City at 51 per cent.

Winnipeg’s downtown is at 48 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, followed by Vancouver’s downtown at 47 per cent, Montreal at 46 per cent and Calgary is at 43 per cent.

A November report by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce said Ottawa has seen a 45 per cent drop in downtown traffic, with the capital ranking 49th out of 55 cities for workers commuting into the downtown core.

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