On a Monday evening last month, three FT colleagues and I each travelled across London to convene at a pub quiz in Hackney. We put in a strong performance, finishing second and narrowly missing out on the £350 prize.
But I digress. The reason I tell this story is that none of us had been in the office that day, yet we all felt perfectly happy to spend roughly the same amount of money and time on our trips to and from the pub as we would have done commuting to the FT’s central London HQ.
This would suggest it’s not just the cost or duration of travel that is preventing city dwellers from spending five days a week in the office; it’s that standing nose-to-armpit on a packed commuter train is not fun, but sitting on an airy train to a pub full of friends is.
Data from Transport for London bear this out. Morning rush hour trips on the Underground are still at just half their pre-pandemic levels on Mondays and Fridays, but the number of people using the Tube late in the evening is almost back to normal.
According to the latest data from Remit Consulting, the capital’s offices are still only around half as full as they were before the pandemic, falling to just a third of historical levels on Mondays and Fridays as many employers switch to a Tuesday-to-Thursday hybrid model. But every other indicator of urban dynamism has rebounded closer to its pre-pandemic baseline than office attendance.
Tube journeys are back above 70 per cent of their normal levels, and above 60 per cent even in the heart of the office-dominated financial districts of the Square Mile and Canary Wharf. Footfall in west London’s core retail and leisure districts is up to 80 per cent, according to data from the New West End Company, and transactions at Pret A Manger have recovered to pre-pandemic levels, according to Bloomberg’s ingenious Pret Index.
Move further into the realms of leisure, and the numbers keep rising. My calculations show that attendance at football matches across the capital has never been higher, and spending in its pubs and restaurants is now tracking above where it was in 2019, according to figures from Fable Data. Evidently some of us are not merely returning to old habits, but making up for lost time.
The trend in London is broadly mirrored in other major cities worldwide, though not all are rebounding as enthusiastically. In New York, perhaps even more reliant on office workers for its social and economic lifeblood, subway traffic is less than half way back to normal, and restaurant bookings still trail 40 per cent below pre-pandemic levels. Nonetheless, the retail and leisure recovery is clearly outpacing the return to the desk.
While the ongoing lag in the return to the office will surely have repercussions, these healthy figures are a tonic for any urbanites who might have feared the pandemic would leave city lights permanently dimmed.