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Cell-phone tracking reveals meagre return to office

Avison Young real-time index shows that back-to-office traffic has fallen 76 per cent in North American cities, with Vancouver traffic down 63.3 per cent from pre-pandemic levels
AY Vancouver downtown traffic
Cutline: Interactive ‘Vitality Index’ shows change in Vancouver office worker traffic since pandemic was declared. | Avison Young, Avant

A new interactive, real-time database that tracks cell phones used by “representative office occupiers” in major North American cities reveals that Vancouver foot traffic is down 63.3 per cent today compared to March 2, 2020, a week before the global pandemic was declared

The unique Vitality Index was developed by commercial real estate agency Avison Young using data from Orbital Insight, which aggregates anonymized cell phone location data geofenced to unique locations, to estimate total foot traffic in each city and industry.

The data, which tracks 20 North American cities, goes back to June 2019 in the U.S. and the beginning of 2020 in Canada, which allows comparisons to pre-pandemic levels.

“The Vitality Index is wildly important for people looking to understand what is happening in real-time and over time in major markets. It measures the pace so that leaders can make decisions based on concrete information and analytics,” said Sheila Botting, Avison Young’s President of Professional Services for the Americas.

The index is revealing, and likely unnerving, for employers who were counting on a widespread return to the office this September.

The cell phone tracking shows that total foot traffic in all 20 commercial cores profiled has fallen by 76.3 per cent from pre-pandemic levels.

In Vancouver, recent traffic for what the index refers to as downtown office workers is down 63.3 per cent from pre-pandemic. On March 2, 2020, for example, a week before the global pandemic was declared, a daily average of more than 4,700 office workers were detected.  As of September 6, 2021, that had fallen to 1,900.

Calgary traffic is down 55.2 per cent this month (September 2021) compared to pre-pandemic levels, while Toronto office-worker traffic has plunged 85.2 per cent from March 2, 2020, the data shows.

The index can be custom-tuned to compare any dates. It reveals, for example, that in the week following the July 1, 2021 announcement of the return of health restrictions in B.C., downtown foot traffic fell by 4.2 per cent.

Botting noted the Vitality Index is showing a steady increase in foot traffic in major cities this year, but is still trending significantly below pre-pandemic levels. The widespread return in the fall that many hoped for has yet to materialize. In fact, the whole nature of office work has apparently undergone a fundamental shift, the index suggests.