I’ll start with a confession. Eric Pickles is the reason I started writing this blog.
Back in the winter of 2011, he attended a conference organised by The Economist, on Urban Planning and Liveable Cities. After he had spoken, Mark Ames posed the following question -
As Secretary of State for Communities, and given the known effects that over-use of private cars has on local communities in terms of urban blight, noise pollution, obesity etc, how do you reconcile and balance these issues with your declaring the end to the so-called war on the motorist?
Pickles’ response was breathtakingly bone-headed -
Don’t be such a puritan. Not all of us can pedal up and down in rubber knickers you know; we need to find balance. Of course, let’s encourage cycling and walking, and we need to make cycling safer, but let us not treat people in cars like the enemy!
It’s hard to imagine a clearer illustration of this government’s total failure to engage with the bicycle as a serious mode of transport – one that can solve all the problems Mark alluded to – than this comment. Cycling is for those people, Pickles is saying, as he presents those who ride bikes as a weird, freakish minority. Yes, we can’t seriously expect everyone to wear rubber knickers! Of course, while we should ensure that the tiny minority of people who want to pedal up and down in their strange outfits aren’t seriously injured – or at least killed – we have to focus on the balance. And by balance we mean keeping things exactly the same as they were before; not imposing any restrictions on driving, and not doing anything to make riding a bike or walking an attractive prospect by comparison. Because that would be puritanical.
The logic is circular; because riding a bicycle is an unpleasant, stressful and inconvenient mode of transport for most people in Britain, it remains the preserve of a minority. And because only a minority are willing to ride bikes, so we must continue to accommodate the needs of mass motoring within our towns and cities, with deleterious effects for all, including those who drive.
The government are either unwilling to break out of this vicious cycle, or lack the awareness or understanding to contemplate how things could be very different – even with an example parked right on our doorstep. This is in marked contrast to Boris Johnson, who now seems to grasp the basic economic logic of designing for greater bicycle use, rather than waiting for more cyclists to appear and then accommodating their needs. Major engineering firms are also now stating, loudly and clearly, that our cities have to focus on the bicycle as a mode of transport.
For central government, however, nothing is changing, and indeed we even seem to be going into reverse, if Pickles’ announcement at the Conservative Party Conference of yet more policies designed to make urban motoring easier (although whether they would have that effect is very uncertain) is taken seriously.
This is the idea that motorists should be entitled to park for free while ‘popping into shops’, coupled with calls for more off-street parking. In an echo of his earlier remark about ‘puritanism’, Pickles spoke of
a rigid state orthodoxy of persecuting motorists out of their cars, with no concern about its effect in killing off small shops… I believe we need to give people the good grace to pop into a local corner shop for 10 minutes, to buy a newspaper or a loaf of bread without risking a £70 fine.
Naturally, the absurdity of people driving to their local corner shop is not even considered.
The whole policy is predicated on a fallacy; namely, that to reverse the decline of the high street, we must make it as easy and cheap to drive to as it is to drive to an out of town shopping centre.
This is not possible. There is not the space in our towns and cities to accommodate unlimited motor traffic (something that has been appreciated for half a century). Motor traffic restraint is necessary not for ‘puritanical’ reasons, but for self-preservation. Free parking everywhere would create chaos, not just for people on foot and cycling, but for other motorists, and for the shops trying to receive deliveries. It is fundamentally impossible to level the playing field between towns and shopping centres built miles away on cheap land, and we should stop trying.
Making it cheap to park on streets degrades the quality of the urban environment, and so destroys the reason why people might choose to shop there, instead of driving past and heading off to an out of town centre. Once you are in your car, the hassle and stress of finding a parking space close by, in town, will obviously be trumped by the lure of unlimited and pain-free parking a little distance further away. As a blogger astutely observed yesterday, with respect to a street in a northern suburb of Bristol -
why is this high street so mediocre? Because its so painfully car centric that it only welcomes people in a car – and once you get in one, you may as well drive all the way on to the ring road instead of shopping in such a run down street. Encouraging people to park simply discourages people from walking to the shops – and once in a car, they can shop where they want.
Another blogger voiced similar thoughts -
Often I have to ‘fire up the Quattro’ just to nip to the shops.
When I get there it’s a flipping pain in the arse. Finding somewhere to park, often having to get change for the parking. And the Quattro is ruddy enormous, I often drive round and round trying to find a big enough space.
To be honest, once I am in the car, I may as well go somewhere that is free to park and has a big multi-storey carpark.
Does this sound like somewhere familiar? You see, the moment I utter the words ‘FIRE UP THE QUATTRO!’ you have lost me.
The money it will cost me in petrol, insurance, parking, etc etc I may as well go a bit further afield and get a few more things. Shopping that I know will probably go off and be thrown away before I eat it, but hey, I was there, it was on special offer……..
But I don’t want to do that.
I want to go to my local Butcher and buy tonight’s tea. Not £150 of over manufactured crap. I want a steak, or some sausages. I want to go to a proper Greengrocer for the veg. I would like to go on my bike, not have to worry about parking or change. I just want a nice trip to the local shops.
If you insist on making your high street attractive only to those who arrive by car, well, you’re going to kill it; car drivers will opt for the easier place to get to, the shopping centre that is actually designed for the motor vehicle, not the high street, which is fundamentally incompatible with mass motoring.
Across the country we now have countless examples of thriving streets, with higher footfalls and longer ‘dwell’ times, all places where the motor vehicle has recently been excluded or restricted.
These are street environments that would be fundamentally ruined as destinations – as places people might want to go to – if all motorists were at liberty to park for free on them. Their attractiveness would be lost.
Most worryingly of all, this lesson does not seem to have been learnt by retail expert Mary Portas, who was charged by the government with carrying out a review into the future of our high streets. She tweeted yesterday
Councils with any sense and commitment to their local shops should listen to Eric Pickles 10 minute parking idea
This is fatuous, and wrong. Councils with any sense should concentrate instead on making their high streets attractive places, and give up on futile attempts to compete with out of town shopping centres on the latter’s terms. Several people pointed this out to Mary Portas on Twitter – that unrestricted motoring in towns and cities would ruin them. Unfortunately her response was even more troubling -
Anything that allows shoppers to stop has to be a good thing.
I couldn’t disagree more. If all those shoppers are arriving directly on the high street by car, that is not ‘a good thing’, not for me, not for anyone, not for the high street itself. But unfortunately Portas, like Pickles, is fixated on the motor vehicle as a mode of urban transport. The Portas Review does not mention walking or cycling even once, yet mentions cars, and car parking, dozens of times. This is despite a mountain of evidence that those arriving on foot, or by bike, actually spend more over the long term, and invest more in their local neighbourhood – you know, the High Street - than those arriving by car, who are more likely to be passing through on their way to somewhere else.
If anything is killing the High Street, it’s the car. Stop pandering to it.