A new dataset from some researchers who are studying the recovery of various cities' downtown cores, post-pandemic, suggests that while SF still lags way behind New York and other cities in terms of daytime, mid-week foot traffic, people are now frequenting bars and restaurants in downtown SF almost at pre-pandemic levels.

The new data comes from the University of Toronto's School of Cities, which has been tracking cellphone data in addition to real estate and other data to track the relative recoveries of multiple cities. The data looks at where cellphones move and then stay clustered at various hours in the day and night, and as KPIX reports, they've found that on some nights, downtown San Francisco is back to 94% of pre-pandemic foot traffic.

"We're measuring stops, that means we're able to look at people who are actually doing something – so it's actually activity downtown," says Dr. Karen Chapple, professor emerita at UC Berkeley and the Director of Toronto's School of Cities, speaking to KPIX.

When it comes to tracking the changes that have occurred to office work because of hybrid schedules, Chapple adds, "It's a moving target, which is why we have to keep studying it. It is still in flux."

This clustering of more people at night may be thanks in part to city- and non-profit sponsored activations like the Vacant to Vibrant program, and to recent conventions like the RSA Convention — which are likely to cause an uptick in activity at downtown restaurants and bars.

But even up at John's Grill, near the otherwise beleaguered Union Square, owner John Konstin has been telling various media outlets including KPIX that he had one of his best years for business in 2023. "Our sales have gone up, actually, here at John's Grill," Konstin said.

The area has also seen a few new openings in the last nine months that are attracting attention and foot traffic, like Chotto Matte on Stockton Street, and Four Kings on Commercial Street at the FiDi edge of Chinatown. New nightlife venues like The Dawn Club debuted in mid-2023 in the hope of waiting out the current slump and bringing more people to lower Market Street.

The Chronicle reports today that office vacancy in SF's downtown remains at a record high level of 36.6%, and by that metric, the city continues to lag way behind others in the recovery — and clearly has far more workers who have not returned to traditional 9 to 5 in-office schedules.

But SF's Chief Economist Ted Egan isn't too gloomy about the future, even if the recovery is going to require extra patience. "I think the story from a year ago hasn’t changed much," he tells the Chronicle. "I don’t expect that to last forever. The region has kept up its share of venture capital and is a leader in artificial intelligence, and that bodes well for the future of tech here."

And remote-work expert and Stanford economics professor Nicholas Bloom tells the paper, "Five years from now things should be back close to pre-pandemic trends... [But] I’m long-run positive on the city with the highly educated population nearby, connections to world-class universities, fantastic weather and Asia exposure... Yes, San Francisco has taken a knock, so ‘doom’ is appropriate but not ‘loop.’ Things are down but the city will recover, and indeed San Francisco is the classic boom-and-bust city."

Related: SF Chronicle Now Seems to Regret Amplifying the 'Doom Loop' Narrative It Heavily Amplified

Photo: Denyz Nevozhai