Pedestrianisation and the decline of the high street

A very silly article has appeared on the BBC news website this morning, the thrust of which is that the decline of the high street – in particular, one high street in north Wales – is apparently due to pedestrianisation.

Welsh councils are being asked to look again at pedestrian zones amid concern they are deterring shoppers. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) says towns need to find new ways to attract people. They should make them easier to get to and easier for car drivers to navigate around, it says.

RICS members are meeting this week to discuss what should be done to make town centres more accessible and get more people spending there. One town the group says could benefit from a review of pedestrianisation is Colwyn Bay.

The BBC have spoken to a greengrocer on Station Road in Colywn Bay, one of the main shopping streets, who is attributing the reason for shutting down to… pedestrianisation.

“Pedestrianisation has been a big nail in the coffin,” he explained. “Fruit and veg is heavy. People don’t want to be carrying bags of veg to the nearest car park. When cars could come down the street, people just used to pop in. We’ve really campaigned against pedestrianisation the whole time. But now it’s too late. It’s terribly sad. I’ve been here all my life, and my father, grandfather and great grandfather before me.”

I don’t suppose you can really blame this grocer for failing to discern the real reasons why he is going out of business. Pedestrianisation of the street seems to have coincided with a decline in footfall, and he has formed causation out of the  correlation, without really thinking about why footfall on streets in Colwyn Bay might have been declining – most likely a rise in out of town retail, the convenience offered by supermarkets, and online shopping.

What’s extraordinary is that Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors – who really should know better – are peddling exactly the same nonsense.

Richard Baddeley, a surveyor in Conwy county and a member of RICS in north Wales, said towns like Colwyn Bay, Holyhead, Rhyl and Holywell have all had pedestrianised areas for some time, but now need to think of new ways to get people spending.

“Shopping has changed. High streets have changed. There are now out-of-town shopping centres – they’re a draw for people,” he said. “One out-of-town shopping centre near north Wales – Cheshire Oaks in Ellesmere Port – has increased its turnover by 22% this year. The key issue is accessibility. Small and medium-sized towns need to think about how they attract cars in the future with improved parking and making the shops more accessible. It will not put the clock back, but improved accessibility may attract new independent retailers.”

But Station Road in Colwyn Bay is accessible by car. The large pale stripe on the map below (Station Road) is clearly very close to two car parks, to the east and north. Consequently it’s bizarre to argue that a lack of car access to the street itself is to blame here, when you can get a car to within such a short distance.

Courtesy of Google

Courtesy of Google

Richard Baddeley references the Cheshire Oaks out of town centre, about forty miles away, as a place where turnover has increased 22% in the last year alone. But this is, of course, a pedestrianised environment.
Picture courtesy of Trip Advisor

Picture courtesy of Trip Advisor

There is, naturally, plentiful parking here, and you can park close to your desired shop.

Courtesy of Google

Courtesy of Google

But unless you are incredibly lazy, and go back to your car and drive it close to another shop you want to visit, you will have to walk around in a pedestrianised environment once you have arrived.

Therefore it simply cannot be the case that ‘pedestrianisation’ is a deterrent to shopping, because shopping centres like this one offer large pedestrianised areas, which are pleasant places to shop in. That is why they get implemented. Out of town retail does not allow you to park directly outside every single shop; for one thing, it would be absolute chaos, and for another, it’s not what people want, or what the managers of these centres want. They’re not stupid.

There is no connection between pedestrianisation and a drop in footfall in shops; quite the opposite. There are many substantive reasons why the high street is declining, but the Royal College of Chartered Surveyors seem to have ignored all of them, and focused on a bogus one. They should be ashamed of themselves.

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19 Responses to Pedestrianisation and the decline of the high street

  1. Andrea says:

    Shame on the BBC to post uncritically a stupid report, rather than highlighting its idiocy, like you have done.

  2. Antony says:

    Pedestrianisation may have contributed to the decline of the high street, in a roundabout way. Sustrans founder John Grimshaw is of the opinion that the wave of pedestrianisation brought in to many town centres during the 1960s and 70s, which usually excluded bikes, actually made people more car-dependent, and caused what he describes as a “lost generation” of cyclists. With shopping by bike suddenly much more inconvenient, people were pushed towards private cars. I’m not aware of any studies on this but it sounds highly plausible.

  3. Paul M says:

    I must say this is a new one on me. Of course I have heard the arguments about parking, and how restrictions of or [increased] charges for car parking is killing town centres. I should imagine the counter arguments are much the same though. Refer to documents like the London Councils study on parking and town centre vitality, (https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B4oZCrMghdvoX1NEOFhJaG5ydU0/edit) or one of its key source documents, the Transport Research Laboratory 2010 review of the academic literature (https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B4oZCrMghdvoZzl4NF9WZG5WcVk/edit) and you will see conclusions such as: retailers always overestimate the importance of car-borne shoppers to their trade, and; while shoppers will say that parking restrictions/charges will deter them from visiting a particular shopping area, the reality is that such changes don’t lead to reduced visiting, indeed rather that they may increase.
    Another clear conclusion in these reports is that retailers have some responsibility for themselves – car parking etc is not the real driver, witness how people will pay much higher charges to visit town centres which have more interesting and varied retail offerings. A lot of what draws people to Cheshire Oaks or Bluewater etc is that they have a much wider and arguably more exciting range of retailers, but that is also driven by another attractive feature, as you say – once you are there, you are in a car-free environment. That has to be more important than free parking – I remember your illustration of the lady who was apparently willing to drive from Horsham to Bluewater, a round trip of perhaps 100 miles (£12-15 in petrol), because she didn’t want to pay the Horsham parking charges (£2 for 2 hours). That’s nuts!

  4. farnie1 says:

    Sadly I think that it probably is to blame. But not in on its own. The problem is not with keeping cars away, it is a lack of viable alternative. And the least the BBC or RICS could have done was to come up with some facts and figures. http://mancbikemummy.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/dear-highstreet.html I am tempted to go over there and give them a stern talking to!

  5. Pedestrianisation isn’t to blame, as you say, people much prefer shopping without having to negotiate roads full of motor vehicles. The problem is that the population have been mostly brainwashed into believing that the only possible way to travel to and from shops is by private motor car. Even shop keepers seem to believe this, even when their shops aren’t “drive-thru” establishments!

    This brainwashing has been reinforced by transport policies that have over several decades “invested” billions in new public roads, free to use by private motor vehicles, and left “public” transport “subsidy” to the whims and profit-making needs of private business. Almost all the expenditure on roads has been to the benefit of motor vehicles, and to the disadvantage of pedestrians and cyclists who now have to fight their way.

    Town centres need to realise that they need to create environments that are as pleasant as, or even nicer than, the big out-of-town shopping “malls”. They need to focus on encouraging people to shop locally, by making walking and cycling to the shops a pleasant and safe experience. The “malls” only beat town centres because many people continue to go shopping by car. As car use declines due to ever-increasing fuel costs (so we can no longer afford the energy needed to take a tonne of metal with us to the shops) we’ll see local shops and town centres back doing good business again.

  6. Gerhard says:

    I wonder if there is also another factor at play. The car outside your house is so incredibly convenient. You are paying so much money for it. So you need to drive, it’s the default. Once you are in the car it matters little whether you drive to your High Street or to an out of town shopping centre. Could travelling a bit further actually justify using the car and therfore the mode that’s most obvious to you?

    • Michael J says:

      Yes. There’s also the fact that petrol is not paid for at time of use, only in advance. Consequently drivers don’t always think about what they are spending on a particular journey, just as overall cost of ownership – if they had to feed pound coins into the dashboard whilst driving then unnecessary car trips (or driving to avoid parking charges!) would probably decrease.

    • D. says:

      Seconded. My wife and I have two cars. Her’s is used as the family runabout (its an old VW campervan, and she uses it to transport her stock to and from craft fairs, as well as driving us all around at weekends).

      I have a car (an old VW Beetle) which I used to use to commute to work – it was never driven at weekends or holidays. When I started cycling to work, it was used less. I now cycle five days a week, and my car was used for a grand total of 700 miles last year.

      Unfortunately, given the work that needed to be done on it to get through the MOT last year I spent “a lot” of money, and I have actually calculated that last year I spent over a pound for every mile I travelled in it – and that was before I factored in petrol.

      So, a trip into the city in that car cost me about £15 before I even started thinking about petrol. At the end of this year, I have to decide whether it is even worth having the car any more, selling it and just having the one car.

      When you start actually costing journeys by car, it gets pretty shocking.

  7. @Anthony, the pedestrianisation of many town centres also meant constructing ring-roads around the outside, which form a barrier to walking and cycling. Cities like Norwich and Leicester saw traditional walking routes into the city all but cut off; and this forms a very real barrier to people who want to travel into the city by bike. It’s not pedestrianisation that’s at fault here, it’s the assumption that people who will be walking around the town centre must have first arrived there by car, and the consequent lack of provision. I briefly worked at Bluewater, while living only a mile away. My walk to work, along the B225, was effectively like crossing a motorway. Most of my colleagues lived equally close, and all of them drove.

  8. Local shops, local people. The rise of the car led to huge polarisation of shopping centres with, in my own area, Colchester and Ipswich draining the life from Harwich, Clacton, Manningtree, Witham Sudbury and Felixstowe. These smaller towns campaigned for bigger roads to bring people in … but in reality they allowed more people (and their money) out of town. The out-of-town stores also promoted a culture of “get it now” rather than “plan ahead and order in”, which had been the norm in gentler days. In the end, if people in the satellite towns wanted a particular colour of varnish, they ignored the nearby shops and drove to the B&Q in the larger towns.

    What we’re seeing now is the beginnings of the situation in reverse. People are buying from the web or, where they still can, local stores, rather than driving to the larger centres. I’m sure if you break down the very slight rise in car journeys last quarter, you will see that more trips have been to work/food shopping compared with a decline in shopping/leisure. Certainly the streets of Colchester are dead after 9.30am. Town centre shops are reaping the whirlwind of 40 years of bad planning and campaigning for a car-based shopping economy.

  9. Tim says:

    This BBC article essentially compares a small high street grocer to an out-of-town outlet based shopping centre, which is ridiculous. I’d be very surprised if many people choose to go to Cheshire Oaks for groceries.

    Of course as suggested in this blog the grocer’s real opposition is the supermarket. Our grocery shopping is a combination of a local “veg box” delivery scheme – a service which the interviewed grocer apparently provides – and a local supermarket. As it happens, the supermarket is actually on the high street, and even provides parking which is used by some motorists using other shops, although most people, like me, are quite local and walk, cycle or use the bus.

    Reasons for preferring the supermarket? In order of importance to me:
    – open when I’m not at work. Why do small retailers think 9-5 is a convenient time for people to shop?
    – convenience of everything under one roof, and one point of payment, etc.
    – carefully calculated pleasant shopping environment, deliberately (and perhaps cynically) designed to be conducive to spending money.

    Nothing to do with driving or parking.

    Certainly, a smaller business doesn’t have the benefits of scale to implement all of these things, so maybe the dice are unfairly weighted against them, but when retailers like this grocer blame pedestrianisation and a lack of parking right outside the shop door it seems essentially lazy and ignorant to me. Vegetables are heavy?! Well maybe that’s why little old ladies have had trolley bags for decades? I think you are overly generous to the grocer. He is totally to blame for his failure to understand his situation. Surely changing with the times is what running a successful business is about?

  10. Tim says:

    Another thought about Colwyn Bay and its neighbours along the North Wales coastline.

    According to Wikipedia, Colwyn Bay is dominated by the tourist trade. This is predictable given its location, which is surely the main attraction? This is a seaside town with a beach.

    Except the town is viciously separated from it’s beach by four lanes of 50mph traffic, as the North Wales Expressway tears a boundary between these communities and their coastline. http://goo.gl/maps/R6kPg

    We’ve used the road, and it does make for a speedy journey from Chester to Anglesey (which has nice unspoilt beachy villages, and the ferry port and docks in Holyhead. But we always feel sorry for poor Colwyn Bay and Abergele. The expressway basically ruins them as holiday destinations and it beggars belief that the residents would be campaigning for more traffic.

  11. farnie1 says:

    And if people didnt want to shop locally, why are Tesco’s local falling over themselves to open more little shops? Do they sense the possible death knell for the superdooper superstore?

  12. Retail parks killed the High Street – the big stores moved out and the customers followed. There are a lot of local and county councillors with a lot to answer for – somebody approved the planning permission. I’m not sure if it is the same in England and Scotland but here in south and south west Wales it seems that every major town has a retail park about 3 miles outside the town centre – that’s where M&S and Debenhams are and that is where people shop.

    • rootes says:

      Decline of smaller high streets, they are generally full of run down shops on dirty streets that sell things that people do not need, why would people want to go there in any form of transport. What Councils need to do is invigorate town centres as vibrant, accessible and compact places with sensible rates for shop tenants, you only have to look around at the empty shops and failed business.. they will never come back on the scale of the past, so let’s do more with less. I live in Woking… if I was in charge I would consolidate shops into one of the two centres, buldoze the other and turn it into a town centre park. Less shops but a nicer and more enticed place.

    • rootes says:

      Decline of smaller high streets, they are generally full of run down shops on dirty streets that sell things that people do not need, why would people want to go there in any form of transport. What Councils need to do is invigorate town centres as vibrant, accessible and compact places with sensible rates for shop tenants, you only have to look around at the empty shops and failed business.. they will never come back on the scale of the past, so let’s do more with less. I live in Woking… if I was in charge I would consolidate shops into one of the two centres, buldoze the other and turn it into a town ocentre park. Less shops but a nicer and more enticed place.

  13. Madoqua says:

    I agree with many of the above sentiments and I think the Main streets of many towns leave a lot to be desired, especially when they have car access. What also annoys me though, is the exclusion of bicycles. I like shopping with my bike, but I can’t ride in some of these places, so I avoid them even when they are car free.

  14. PaulC says:

    My town is typical – a dying high street with a half baked attempt at pedestrianisation, NCP and other assorted charging car parks, surrounded by a congested ring road, and the usual out of town ‘big box’ retail parks with free parking, including a Tesco megastore the size of Texas, again with free parking.

    All the talk locally is about ‘re-engaging with the motorist’ as a way to rejuvenate the town centre. The charge is led by a local garage owner seemingly in cahoots with the local paper. If they get their way, the town centre will be turned back into a car park, which will only hasten it’s demise in my opinion.

    The causes of the failing high street have not really been addressed. Tesco provide virtually a replacement 24×7 High Street under one roof – supermarket, pharmacy, optician, newsagent, butcher, baker, candlestick maker. The usual story. Anyone wanting lots of big shops can drive to several large nearby towns and take their pick. Blaming pedestrianisation of our High Street is missing the point entirely. Banning cars entirely from the town centre and making it as attractive as possible for cyclists and pedestrians might be a more reliable way to rejuvenate the local shops. As ever, learning from other towns/countries which have already achieved this is apparently not an option!

    Despite the town being barely 5 miles from extremity to extremity, ideal for cycling, it’s dominated by the car. Driving culture is totally embedded in the locals. They would apparently rather sit in long traffic jams and get frustrated over parking spaces than consider an alternative.

    But, someone in the local council seems to get it. New build estates, which are constantly appearing, all come with wide shared use cycle paths. Older pavements are being widened and either made shared use or occasionally dedicated cycle paths. These are all starting to join up and it’s getting easier to get around without going anywhere near traffic. 10 years ago, I could commute across town without seeing another cyclist all week. Now, I can see 20 or so each day.

    Things are far from perfect of course, it’s still a car dominated town, but I feel changes are afoot. I hope a tipping point will come over the next few years, the sooner the better. I try to remain optimistic.

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