Yesterday I gave a brief presentation at a Town Centre Opportunities event in London; the theme of the conference was on revitalising urban space and keeping ‘The High Street’ thriving.
I was invited to talk in a supposedly provocative capacity, forming part of a panel debate (along with John Dales, and others) designed to stimulate discussion about alternatives. Pleasingly, however, it seemed that what I had to say (namely, we need to focus much less on the car and car parking when we think about reinvigorating towns, and focus more on enabling different modes of urban transport, and the bicycle in particular) was actually part of something approaching a consensus.
This might have had something to do with the fact that representatives of motoring organisations, for instance the AA and the RAC, were not in attendance, despite having been invited. (Nor was Mary Portas). But it was encouraging nonetheless.
I started by talking about the difficulty town centres currently have in attempting to compete with out of town shopping centres, which are usually easy to access by car, and almost always free to park at. Indeed, one of the speakers before me mentioned how in the mid-1990s, the great majority of new urban development in Britain was out of town – she referred to this period as the beginning of the ‘great death’ of town centres.
Out of town land is cheap, and consequently it is relatively easy to accommodate huge areas of parking at low cost.
It’s also relatively easy to build big access roads to these shopping centres, so you can funnel huge numbers of motor cars into them. Conversely, it’s much more difficult to push motor vehicles around in towns and cities – although unfortunately that still doesn’t stop us trying to do so.
In addition, land is much more expensive in towns and cities, so inevitably storing cars becomes more expensive. Monstrous multi-storey car parks are required.
So, out of town centres are usually very easy to get to by car (without the congestion and stress involved in navigating town centres), and are free to visit. Town centres are at a competitive disadvantage.
The Portas Review [pdf] recommends a number of measures to redress the balance, including a presumption in favour of town centre, rather than out of town, development. But on the subject of access to towns, the Portas strategy is rather unimaginative – namely, to attempt to make high streets as cheap and easy to access by car as out of town centres.
In essence, the Review calls for
- free car parking;
- cheaper car parking generally;
- car parking in more convenient locations (presumably closer to shops);
- and a parking ‘league table’, showing which authorities are charging the most (doubtless in an attempt to encourage them to charge less).
There’s even an attractive illustration of someone happily shopping, thanks to free parking.
But there is a problem with this Portas vision. Make parking free, or cheap, and allow it close to where people actually want to go, and the end result is streets like this -
Cluttered, congested and unpleasant.
And, of course, more car parking in towns means more driving, which means streets are noisier, less pleasant, and less safe.
(Second picture by Joe Dunckley)
But amenity is obviously important, and we shouldn’t sacrifice it just so people can get into towns more easily. Indeed, the Portas Review recognises this, stating that
“High streets… need to be spaces and places that people want to be in.”
“…small and cluttered pavements, as well as busy roads, can make high streets unsafe for family shopping [indeed, surely for any type of shopping].”
“our high streets need to offer a safe and pleasant place to shop and socialise.”
But making it cheaper and easier to park in town centres will inevitably result in the opposite – busier roads, less pleasant streets, and less safety. A worse environment for the people you actually want to visit towns, and to stick around in them. Places that you don’t want to be in.
We already know that attractive, convivial streets are usually low traffic environments, often without car parking.
(This is the southern section of Exhibition Road – only a matter of yards from the street in the previous photograph).
So – we know that town centre streets need cheap and easy access if they are to successfully compete with out of town shopping. But unfortunately too much cheap and easy access by car can ruin these places as destinations. For example, nobody wanted to hang around on the southern section of Exhibition Road when it looked like this.
So what’s the solution to this conflict between accessibility and amenity?
The answer is, of course, the bicycle.
At least 50 bicycles parked in front of a Dutch supermarket. Right in front of it. But no congestion, no difficulty in finding a spot to park, no noise, and very little danger. The street remains a pleasant place.
70% of Dutch supermarket shopping is carried out on foot, or by bike, and for very good reason – because the Dutch want things this way. Walking and cycling have been made the obvious way to get about for short urban trips. And as a consequence their town and city centres are calm, beautiful and attractive places.
This hasn’t happened by accident; making the bicycle easy to use has been designed into the streetscape.
But, as I said during my presentation, there is no reason why we cannot change. 66% of all British trips are less than 5 miles; 38% are less than 2 miles.
A considerable proportion of these trips could easily be cycled by most people if the conditions were right. Of course the Netherlands is flatter than the UK, but most short trips in British towns and cities are, to all intents and purposes, pretty flat. Topography is no excuse for our dismal failure to realise a sane urban transport policy. 56% – that’s over half – of all trips between 1-2 miles long in Britain are driven, which is both a consequence and an explanation of why our towns and cities are so often unpleasant, traffic-dominated places.
Just 2% of British trips under 3 miles are cycled; the equivalent figure for the Netherlands is 39%. That doesn’t mean that the Dutch have simply abandoned cars; they own more of them per capita than the UK. It just means that Dutch urban areas are designed in such a way that the bicycle – a brilliant mode of transport in its own right – naturally comes to the fore.
My final point in the presentation was that reducing car use in urban areas does not mean reducing trade. Not only are Dutch towns thriving, bustling places (at least, the ones I have visited), we already know that the amount of spending in towns corresponds poorly to motor vehicle use.
Even under current British conditions – with walking and cycling relatively unattractive, compared to driving – research consistently shows that people arriving on foot, by bike, or by public transport spend more over the long term than those arriving by car. They may not be filling up their large boot with goods (unfortunately, so easy to visualise), but they will be making more visits, and spending more overall.
People arriving in a town centre on foot or by bike are more likely to stop spontaneously. They are not committed to finding a parking space; if they see something (or someone) interesting, they can stop where they like. They can also stay around as long as they want, with no concerns about retrieving their vehicle. It’s also easier (and cheaper) for them to come and go more frequently – anecdotally, I am much more inclined to pop into town for a trivial purpose if it’s by bike, than by car, simply because it’s much less hassle.
And finally – and probably most importantly – if most trips into a town are by bike, or by foot, the town itself becomes an attractive place where people will want to be.
It’s a great pity that the Portas Review had nothing at all to say about how we get into our towns beyond the use of the car, and equally that it did not seem to appreciate how making it easier to drive into and park in them can destroy the very attractiveness that the Review itself recognises as important.
Thankfully, going by the discussion yesterday, I’m not the only one who was disappointed with the Review, and who appreciates that there is more to urban transport than the motor car.