Why Axis

Despite reopening orders, real-time economic data shows Canada’s economy remains largely frozen

Downtown Toronto during the COVID-19 pandemic. Shutterstock
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Despite government orders across Canada to reopen the economy, vehicle traffic, transit usage and restaurant reservations remain near record lows. However, an uneven recovery appears to be underway, with some cities restarting much faster than others, according to The Logic’s analysis of real-time economic data. 

Nationwide restaurant reservations are down 75 per cent from the same time last year, but up from the 100 per cent drop in March. That increase is driven largely by Edmonton, which leads not only the average in Canada, but most of the world when it comes to restaurant reservations, down only 42 per cent from last year. Toronto reservations, by contrast, are still down 99 per cent.

Talking Point

Traffic, transit usage and restaurant reservations remain low nationwide, according to an analysis by The Logic. The real-time economic data shows which regions are reopening more quickly than others as more traditional economic indicators lag. The most recent data on GDP and manufacturing sales, for example, is from April.

Flights have reached a new normal, with Toronto Pearson International Airport doing about 100 flights a day, up slightly from the 80 daily flights in April, but well below pre-pandemic levels of over 600. 

Official forecasters for the Canadian economy are near-universally pessimistic. The OECD is predicting Canada’s GDP will contract eight per cent this year without a second COVID-19 wave, and 9.4 per cent with one. The country’s large banks are predicting downturns of between 5.9 per cent and 7.5 per cent. 

In April, The Logic used real-time data to show the country almost entirely frozen. At the time, some official economic statistics were three months out of date. As of this update’s June 18 publication, the most recent data on GDP, manufacturing sales and good trades balance is from April. 

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Restaurant reservation data shows the uneven ways in which Canadian provinces are reopening. The number of seated diners at Quebec and Ontario restaurants is down 98 and 93 per cent, respectively, compared with the same day last year, according to data compiled by OpenTable. That’s up from the 100 nationwide per cent drop, which lasted from March 22 to May 12, but only marginally. 

Nationally, however, the decrease is 75 per cent—driven by Edmonton, where reservations are down 42 per cent from the same time last year as well as Calgary, where reservations are down 56 per cent and Vancouver, which is at 71 per cent.  

Canada as a whole lags the global decrease in reservations, which is at 68 per cent, but is ahead of countries like Mexico and the U.K., which are still down over 90 per cent from last year.

Traffic is up nationwide, but still well below pre-pandemic levels. Vancouver drivers are facing the most traffic, according to TomTom, an Amsterdam-based satellite navigation firm that tracks road usage in 12 Canadian cities. 

Vancouver congestion levels reached a high point of 37 per cent on June 5, up from around 20 per cent in April, but well below the 2019 average of about 70 per cent. 

Methodology

Airplane departure data comes from FlightRadar24, which lists the number of tracked flights from 247 airports in Canada. Data from the 10 busiest airports was extracted. The traffic congestion chart looks at evening rush hour in the 12 Canadian cities tracked by TomTom. That’s 5:00 p.m. local time in Vancouver, Toronto, Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo and 4:00 p.m. local time in the other eight cities. The internet-connected devices data is from Plume, which looks at the percentage of smartphones and laptops at home between 9:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. local time in seven Canadian cities. Restaurant reservation data is from OpenTable; it shows year-over-year percentage comparisons by day for the number of seated diners at restaurants nationwide, as well as in Canadian cities and provinces where OpenTable has over 50 restaurants. Apple Maps data shows the relative volume of direction requests for driving, walking and transit on a given day compared with the baseline volume of January 13. 

Other cities have seen little movement since March. Halifax, for example, has had around 15 per cent congestion during evening rush hour since April, compared with its typical averages of around 50 per cent. 

Kitchener-Waterloo has similarly remained at around 10 per cent congestion for the past three months. Ontario entered stage one of its reopening plan on May 19, but only a few cities in the province have seen significant increases in traffic between then and June 5. Ottawa hovered around 15 per cent in April and May before jumping to over 20 per cent in early June. Hamilton was at around 10 per cent in April and May, then increased to around 15 per cent in early June.

As vehicle traffic drops, searches for walking routes on Apple Maps have soared. Nationwide walking searches are up 22 per cent, according to Apple, which aggregates changes in search volume for directions on its Maps app. Searches for transit maps are down 56 per cent, but driving searches are up 24 per cent. Apple data includes fewer cities than TomTom, which could account for the difference between map searches and cars on the road; it’s also possible more people are looking for directions, but not driving at rush hour. 

Departures at Pearson airport are down 80 per cent, with 597 on March 3 compared with 113 on June 16. That’s up from the 79 departures on April 13, an 87 per cent drop from the month prior. 

Most of the country’s other major airports, including Montreal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Vancouver International and Calgary International, are also up slightly, but still well below pre-pandemic levels. Some have effectively flatlined in terms of the number of departures. Toronto City Billy Bishop hasn’t seen more than six departures a day in at least a month. Halifax Stanfield has hovered around 15 departures a day for the past month.

The at-home use of internet-connected devices during the workday is still near record levels, according to data compiled by Wi-Fi analytics firm Plume. Calgarians are using their devices the most, up 46.9 per cent from pre-pandemic levels, but all tracked cities are up over 30 per cent. 

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The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company collects data on the percentage of computers and smartphones being used for more than six hours at a time between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. local time across seven European countries, seven Canadian cities and 14 U.S. municipalities. Plume’s data comes from its clients, including internet service providers in Canada like Bell. All in, the firm has over 700 million devices on its cloud. 

Overall usage in Canada is down slightly from May. Toronto, for example, was in the mid-50 per cent range for most of that month but is now down generally within the 40 per cent range. That’s still well above pre-pandemic levels. Ottawa, for example, typically has about 28 per cent of people using internet-connected devices at home during the workday. It’s been above 40 per cent since mid-March.