'Future of the High Street' dependent on better walking environments

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

As Mary Portas’ findings on the Future of the High Street are published, Living Streets has emphasised that safe, attractive, enjoyable pedestrian environments are a key factor that set successful high streets and town centres apart.

The report, published this morning, emphasised the importance to communities of safe, attractive and sociable high streets, advocating the establishment of ‘Town Teams’ to manage and market town centres and a presumption in favour of town centre development to help high streets compete with out of town shopping and leisure parks. However, the need to resolve key transport issues – notably traffic congestion – and the importance of high quality pedestrian environments in increasing customer footfall saw little mention, with more free parking in town centres among the report’s most controversial recommendations.

This is despite mounting evidence of the economic benefits of better streets. Living Streets’ recent research, Making the Case for Investment in the Walking Environment, highlighted Exeter City Centre, where investment in the walking environment had helped increase footfall by 30 per cent, and quoted a study in Bristol which found that retailers on a local high street hugely overestimated the proportion of shoppers arriving by car: in fact, over half of the shoppers had arrived there by foot, and greater proportions had arrived by bus and cycle than estimated by retailers. Pedestrians also tended to visit more shops than those arriving by car. Similarly, Transport for London’s Town Centre Survey found that people walking to a town centre spent an average of £93 per week in the area, as compared to £70 for bus users and just £56 for those arriving by car [1]. Living Streets’ own experiences in carrying out community street audits in locations such as Walworth Road and Dagenham Heathway in London have revealed similar trends.

Meanwhile, businesses surveyed by the British Chambers of Commerce have consistently condemned traffic congestion as a major barrier to success. In a survey in 2010, 85% of businesses cited the volume of traffic as a key reason for congestion, and estimated the cost to their business of transport problems at an average of £19,080 [2]. More parking is likely to make the situation worse, not better: a review of the evidence commissioned by the Department for Transport found a clear link between parking availability and car use, and concluded that there was ‘no evidence’ to suggest that restricting car parking had a significant negative effect on economic development [3]. 

Living Streets’ Chief Executive, Tony Armstrong, said:

"It’s good that the Government has recognised the importance of the high street as a community focus and an economic hub. There are many positive ideas in Mary Portas’ report – including the need for more active management of the physical environment in town centres, for encouraging participation in neighbourhood planning and, in step with Living Streets’ campaigning, for communities to have greater control over the spread of betting shops.


"But without tackling the problems of traffic congestion and underinvestment in the walking environment head-on, we’re only telling half the story. Some of the best loved shopping streets, both in the UK – such as in Kingston and Cheltenham, which both came out top in a major competition earlier this year – and in Europe, are distinguished by how comfortable, enjoyable and safe they feel to walk around. If they’re serious about high streets, the Government and local authorities need to get serious about investing in the walking environment."

 

[1] Transport for London. 2011. Town Centre Survey 2011 (p.48). www.tfl.gov.uk/assets/downloads/customer-research/town-centre-study-2011-report.pdf

[2] British Chambers of Commerce. 2010. Reconnecting Britain: A Business Infrastructure Survey (p.12).   www.britishchambers.org.uk/6798219246885060772/BCC%20Infrastructure%20Survey.pdf

[3] Atkins for Department for Transport. 2008. Research into the Use and Effectiveness of Maximum Parking Standards (p.3-13). http://assets.dft.gov.uk/publications/parking-standards/report.pdf