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Packed Trains And Bustling Sidewalks: Boston’s Return To Office Is Finally Materializing

The train platform at West Medford’s commuter rail station Wednesday morning was filled with sleepy-eyed men and women dressed in business formal attire standing in silence as the train to North Station slowly came to a halt. 

“You might have to go to the head car, there’s always seats up there,” the conductor told passengers as a warning that some cars would be full.

While a warning to passengers, the notice of packed train cars serves as a promising sign for Boston's office owners and employers who have struggled to bring employees back downtown. With summer vacations now over and the Orange Line back in operation after a monthlong closure, the number of people commuting downtown appears to be ramping up.

A commuter train pulls into West Medford station in late September.

During the workweek starting Sept. 19, foot traffic around offices in Boston was down 45.2% from the same week in 2019, according to data. While still a far cry from pre-pandemic levels, this was the closest the city came to its 2019 foot traffic since before the Orange Line shut down in August, and it outpaced several of its peers —  San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, D.C. and Houston were all more than 50% below 2019 levels. 

“There are certain downtowns in America that are quite dead, that are much slower to come back,” Marty Long, director of real estate strategy and operations at Industrious, said at Bisnow’s State of the Office Market event last month. "Luckily, Boston is so much better off than so many American cities."

The coworking operator’s six Boston-area locations recorded higher occupancy last month than they did before the pandemic, Long said. 

The energy in the city this week was not only present at North Station but on the streets around prominent office towers in the Financial District, the Seaport and South Station, with streams of workers heading into the office.

“People are starting to miss being able to remove their home life from work life,” said Shane Ruffing, one of the many commuters walking on the sidewalks near South Station the morning of Sept. 28. “I don’t think people are too upset about having to go back. I do think that they like when it is their choice versus being told they have to go in.”

Ruffing, a consultant at Cobalt Software Inc., said he hadn’t been in the office since before the pandemic, and Wednesday marked his first day back at the company’s headquarters near South Station. His company hasn't mandated employees to return, he said, but executives are encouraging them to go back once a week. 

“Not sure how many will actually go back, but there’s been a push,” Ruffing said. 

Commuters at North Station on their way to work.

Anita Lauricella, co-interim executive director at the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District, said foot traffic in the downtown area is up 30% to 35% compared to last year. Bringing workers back into the office also helps bring business to local restaurants and shops in the city, she said. 

“A lot of employers are focusing on different coffee hours and doughnuts and stuff for their employees who do come back, but we have plenty of shopping and restaurants for people to take a break and walk out of the office,” Lauricella said. “If you have come down to work and you want to stick around longer, there are things for you to do.”

Mayor Michelle Wu has been pushing to bring more people back downtown. This summer, her administration used $300K in federal pandemic recovery funds to host a series of free events in downtown plazas, an effort branded Boston Together Again. Last week, Wu announced the reopening of a temporary beer garden at City Hall Plaza with Franklin-based 67 Degrees Brewing.

“We want [employees] to feel excited about that decision and know that there are some great things for them when they do get downtown,” Lauricella said. “Whether they've made the choice to get off their couch, whether their boss is encouraging them to get off their couch.”

For employers, the challenge is trying to find new ways to attract workers back to the office. MP Boston principal Joe Larkin said at last month’s Bisnow event that the firm’s tenants have been asking for assistance in their return-to-office efforts. 

“The biggest thing I see, quite frankly, is the customer base is screaming to us in a way that I've never heard,” Larkin said. “They're saying, ‘We need help. We need help getting our people in the office.’”

People walk to work in downtown Boston.

One security guard in the downtown office building at 75 Arlington St. said in the year they have worked there, the number of people coming into work has noticeably increased. 

“At first, it was pretty dead, with people working at home, but now it’s been picking up because of people doing half of their work in the office and half at home,” said the security guard, who asked to remain anonymous. “I feel like most of the people I’ve interacted with have kept a good balance. I don’t think that there are any employers that have been really strict on their employees to be here in person every day.”

For some, employers aren’t offering a choice of whether to go into the office or work from home. 

Denise Bond, a paralegal walking to work Wednesday morning in the Financial District, said her company required all employees to come back into the office five days a week in May after it leased a new space. Although the company said camaraderie and productivity were the main reasons for the mandate, Bond said she wasn’t happy with the policy.

“I think the more mature people actually like to do their work and get it done,” Bond said. “Having that flexibility of rolling out of bed at 8:45 and being on your computer at 9 is a lot different than getting up at 6 to commute into the city.”