SF office foot traffic still worst in the nation, but slowly improving

City’s offices remain nearly 60% below pre-pandemic levels, per report

San Francisco; arrows
(Illustration by The Real Deal with Getty)

San Francisco continues to lag behind the rest of the nation in its office foot traffic, but downtown attendance is slowly returning, according to data from Placer.ai

The city’s average office visits were 58.4 percent below pre-pandemic levels in the first quarter of this year, the worst recovery in the country. Second-lowest-return Chicago had a 49.5 percent drop in office visits, while most-recovered markets Miami and Washington, D.C. are down by about one-third. 

The report, which uses cell phone data to track office foot traffic in 800 buildings across 11 urban markets, also points out that San Francisco’s office attendance has been slowly inching upwards since the pandemic dropped office attendance to an all-time low of about 90 percent below the end of 2019 figures. Every quarter since has improved, according to the report.

Despite San Francisco’s lackluster foot traffic growth,” it reads, “the Golden Gate City’s visit gap has continued to gradually close over the past year.” 

Other cities have had a more up-and-down trajectory, and many had big upticks that they couldn’t sustain, the report found. A high point for many markets was the third quarter of 2021 and second quarter of 2022, but neither of those office returns ended up sticking. 

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Alexander Quinn, director of research at JLL, said it remains to be seen if the downtown has reached its new normal, but he doesn’t think so. “Typical disruption events” like the pandemic usually change behavior by 10 to 20 percent, not 50 percent, he said via email, adding that if the recent tech layoffs continue it could finally give employers the upper hand in the ongoing return-to-office debate.

“While I don’t believe we will get back to 100 percent, I do believe as leadership takes a deeper dive into their IP creation and staff development and cohesion, that many positions will require more days in the office,” he said. “While outsourcing will continue and certain industries are more meaningfully amenable to remote work, there’s still a need for the serendipitous creation that occurs at the workplace, especially amongst IP heavy industries.” 

After a long, rainy winter with storms violent enough to  knock windows loose in downtown buildings, the recent warm spring weather could also lead to a further uptick in attendance, according to Derek Daniels, research director at Colliers. He joked that he saw “blue skies and rays of sunshine” in downtown’s future. 

“In all seriousness, good weather will improve the return to office,” he said via email. “The trend in RTO in San Francisco was steadily but slowly improving over the past year and was on pace to surpass 50 percent sometime in the third quarter, but the heavy rains in the first quarter appear to have slowed that recovery.”

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Sam Francisco Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin, 555 California Street, 301 Mission Street and 50 California Street (City of San Francisco, Vanguard Properties, Getty, Chris Yunker from Portland/CC BY-SA 2.0/via Wikimedia Commons, Minesweeper/CC0/via Wikimedia Commons)
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