Downtown Toronto’s economic recovery from COVID-19 is lagging behind most other North American cities, according to a new research study.
The study, called “Death of Downtown?” ranked Toronto 49th out of 62 North American cities for downtown recovery, using signals from cellphone towers. The study is a joint product of the University of Toronto and the University of California, Berkeley.
From March through May, the study found, Toronto was at just 46 per cent of levels for the same period in 2019, tied with Oakland, New Orleans and Calgary. In contrast, top-ranked Salt Lake City, Utah, was at 155 per cent. Last-place San Francisco was at 31 per cent.
It is no coincidence, said study co-author Karen Chapple, that Toronto and San Francisco were two cities with some of the longest, deepest lockdowns during COVID-19. Other Canadian cities also lagged behind their U.S. counterparts.
“It’s clear. You look at that ranking chart and you look at the red cities, which are the Canadian ones, and Canada had much stricter lockdown policies than almost anywhere in the United States, with a couple of exceptions. The San Francisco area, sometimes New York were almost on the Canadian models,” said Chapple, director of the School of Cities at the University of Toronto.
The top-ranked Canadian city in the study was Halifax, in 20th place, with a 72 per cent recovery. London was the top-ranked Ontario city in 32nd place, with a 57 per cent recovery. Montreal and Vancouver were 55th and 57th, at 44 and 43 per cent, respectively.
While the severity and length of lockdowns played a key role in how a city’s downtown economy came through COVID, two other factors were also major contributors, Chapple added. And both have made it harder for Toronto during the recovery.
“The two most important things were composition of the economy — whether you’re reliant on sectors that had a lot of remote work, like finance, tech and professional services. If you’re overly specialized, as Toronto is, in those sectors? You didn’t do so well. The other thing that really mattered was how you got to work. Because people haven’t wanted to get back on transit,” said Chapple. Toronto is usually a place that relies heavily on transit, Chapple added; before COVID, there were 1.7 million trips on the TTC on an average weekday.