Boston is coming back.
After 14 months when many people stayed home most of the time, the city’s streets have started to feel alive again. Groups of tourists are ambling along the Freedom Trail. Restaurants are busier. Even ridership on the T is picking up.
Walking around these last few weeks, you can feel Boston blossoming like spring. And the data back it up. Measures of foot traffic, of time spent at home, even of how often we’re looking up directions on our phones ― they all point toward the reopening well underway.
Alvaro Lima, director of research at the Boston Planning & Development Agency, has been watching the numbers closely, tracking a wide array of metrics. Among the things he has noticed: Even as downtown emptied during the pandemic, activity gradually grew in neighborhood business districts. Also, behavior during the pandemic wasn’t always influenced by government orders or guidance. “People were staying at home before the government made them,” he said. “And when the government tells you you can leave the house, people don’t automatically come back.”
But now, broadly speaking, they are. Take a look.
Few industries were hit as hard as restaurants. After being closed for almost three months last year, those that reopened labored under an array of restrictions. But as more people got vaccinated this year, business surged, particularly over the past six weeks, when outdoor dining again became appealing. Now the last of the restrictions have been lifted, and the number of restaurant diners is quickly returning to pre-pandemic levels.
Remember when Red Line cars were stuffed? Ridership at gated stations — which does not include buses — plunged when the pandemic hit. The rebound was slow, but lately it has accelerated. Ridership is up roughly 50 percent since the start of the year and is at its the highest since March 2020. Still, with daily commuters and many students yet to return to the city and some still reluctant to board trains, it will be awhile before MBTA ridership completely recovers.
When you look up directions on an iPhone, Apple knows. And it knows that more people are looking for directions in Boston — to travel by foot, by car, and even by public transit — than at any time since the pandemic hit. In a city that’s notoriously hard to get around in, pulling up a map is a pretty good indicator people are out and about.
We’re going back to the stores, too. The data firm Safegraph tracks foot traffic at many consumer-oriented businesses, including restaurants, drugstores, Target, and Home Depot. As of last Monday, store traffic was essentially back to pre-pandemic levels. The increase in May — as vaccinations took hold and restrictions were eased — was especially dramatic.
Accordingly, we’re staying home less. Google has a pretty good idea where people are at any given time, thanks to the supercomputers so many of us carry in our pockets. The number of people staying home all day has been trending down for months. The weather still makes a difference, though. The number of people at home on May 30 bumped up. That was Memorial Day weekend, when the weather was miserable.