Anyone who has visited the downtown cores in Canada’s major cities recently knows they’ve been largely devoid of people during the COVID-19 pandemic – in part due to government-imposed restrictions.
A new series of heat maps created by CBRE’s Geographic Information Systems data illustrates just how drastic the change has been.
The brainchild of Naz Ali, CBRE’s manager of GIS services in Vancouver, the three maps are a graphic illustration of traffic patterns from January through May along Robson Street in downtown Vancouver, the Ste. Catherine shopping district in Montreal and Toronto’s usually bustling Yonge-Dundas Square (story continues below illustration).
When activated, the pre-COVID heat maps show bright red areas where many people used to congregate. These areas quickly turn to blue, then dark blue, as traffic in the areas drops due to the virus and the government-mandated shutdowns of businesses.
“It was really exciting to be honest for me to be able to work on this because it is so different from what I would normally do on a daily basis,” Ali told RENX during an interview Friday morning.
Dramatic reductions in traffic
Having seen the drastic reduction in traffic with her own eyes in Vancouver’s downtown, Ali knew in advance what the heat maps would show.
“I sort of did, noticing especially living in Vancouver how Robson changed all of a sudden with all those boardings on all the stores (many downtown businesses boarded windows and doors as a precaution) and literally driving around you see nobody,” she said.
“The roads were empty. I think it made me curious wondering what would look like, and visualizing it.”
The drop was most dramatic in Montreal’s Ste. Catherine St. Shopping district, where traffic plunged 88 per cent. In Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square traffic declined 84 per cent and along the Robson corridor it was down 74 per cent — in part because there are some residential buildings in the area (small areas where the heat map remains red because people and their cellphones were in the residences).
How the data is collected
The data is provided by third-party apps on cellphones when people have location services options activated.
Ali said the data available to CBRE would represent about five to 10 per cent of all the data that could be available (some cellphones would not have location data activated, and some third-party apps would not be available to CBRE), but it still represents a fairly accurate snapshot of traffic patterns.
“I basically grabbed every single point that was pinged (by these apps) in those locations over that period of time,” Ali said. “That’s why it’s more of a heat map just to show the visualization, rather than giving actual numbers.”
For the graphs, Ali used 2019 data for the locations as the baseline to show overall traffic patterns.
“One hundred is the index I would be using. Anything over 100 shows me there was definitely over-average traffic. That’s what you see in each of those graphs from (January) to March. Then it drops after each of the provinces declares a state of emergency.”
Ali said mass mobile data is “dramatically changing” how retailers making site selection decisions, and their ability to analyze how customers navigate malls and stores.