When the City Dwellers Stay Away

How do cities recover from COVID lockdowns? This question has so far been based on rather unreliable data and statements, but a new study from UC Berkeley evaluates mobile connections in 62 cities and compares the same periods from 2019 against 2022. With this rate, one can see how many smartphones and thus people are in the inner cities. And there are big differences to be seen, which are also influenced by the ratio of offices and residential spaces.

While Salt Lake City has gained more than half of its mobile users, with a 155% share as a result of the pandemic, San Francisco is at the lower end of the spectrum. Only 31% of pre-pandemic cellular connections are measured in the city.

Recovery rate

The median score for the 62 North American cities is 57%, which means that still, two and a half years after the start of the pandemic, only slightly more than half of the people have returned to the inner cities.

Residents gained primarily in cities in more rural areas, such as Salt Lake City, Bakersfield, Columbus and Fresno. All four cities have higher cellular connection rates than before the pandemic.

Why San Francisco is suffering so badly from the pandemic probably also has to do with the work-from-home policies of Silicon Valley tech companies. Most of them, like Twitter, Uber or Google have moved to generous models where no office presence is required anymore. Also, industries like IT, lawyers, FInance, consulting, publishing, architecture, or advertising, by the nature of the work, allow it to be done from home. As a result, entire office towers stand empty in cities like San Francisco and New York City, where these industries are particularly prevalent.

The pandemic also impacted tourism. San Francisco and NYC in particular are popular tourist destinations, contributing to the crowds and thus mobile connection numbers.

Recovery Quotient

Also, cities with good public transit infrastructure are more affected than car-friendly ones. During the pandemic, workers avoided public transit, while cities like San Diego benefited from their car-friendly infrastructure with lots of parking in downtown areas.

While rates are slowly recovering, some cities remain at very low levels. As countermeasures, cities are now increasing cultural offerings, from more museum activities and festivals to expanding car-free zones for guest gardens and other offerings.

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