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Can cycling save the high street?

The people who spend the most in their local shops are walking and cycling, not in cars. That has big implications for our high streets and how they should be designed, writes David Taylor


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Cycling and shopping
David   Taylor
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Picture yourself on your local high street to do a spot of shopping. Are you on foot, clutching a bag for life? On a bike, with panniers for groceries or less fruity Apple products? Maybe you’re in a car, buzzing around for a parking space at your local superstore.

 

Well, if research from Transport for London is to be believed, the people who spend the most in local shops are walking and cycling, not in cars. And that has big implications for our high streets and how they should be designed in future.

 

The research, Walking & Cycling: the Economic Benefits, claims that high street public realm improvements can increase retail sales by up to 30%. It builds on another recent report called Street Appeal, prepared by UCL, led by Matthew Carmona and others from its school of planning. That report shows non-car drivers spending some 40% more than gas-guzzling counterparts – a breath of fresh air for our ‘nation of shopkeepers’.

 

The key to the UCL study was that it concentrated on work done in areas of London which have been ‘mini-Hollanded’ or ushered in other cycle and pedestrian-friendly measures, along with decluttering and enhancing the pedestrian environment. Places like Bromley, Hornchurch and Clapham, with pictures of widened pavements, markets and street furniture aimed at getting people to dwell more and pass through less.

 

Research from TfL says cyclists and pedestrians spend the most money in local shops and that public realm improvements can increase retail sales by up to 30%

 

Headline findings also included uplifts in office rental values equivalent to an additional 4% per year, retail rental values up 7.5%, a strong decline in retail vacancies, not to mention the significant health benefits that come from more active lifestyles, plus improved perceptions of character and ‘general street vibrancy’.

 

All of this plays to the notion that streets are, to quote the report, “more than just corridors that facilitate the movement of traffic”. Sarah Cary, who is leading something of a charge in this debate in the London Borough of Enfield, revealed at Mipim that she had banned ‘roads’ in favour of ‘streets’. Streets are where we meet and socialise, where businesses are located, where we walk and cycle, and where the public life of the city thrives.

 

It’s all about creating a better balance between movement and place-based functions. Previous studies have been similarly conclusive. A Portland, Oregon, study found drivers spent less in a month than other shoppers in 2012. A New York study found streets with dedicated cycle lanes saw a larger rise in retail sales compared to the surrounding area in 2014. Most recently, Madrid reported that closing its central business district to cars during 2018’s Christmas period resulted in a 9.5% boost to retail spending (and cleaner air) according to Spanish bank BBVA in a study on 20 million transactions.

 

Streets with dedicated cycle lanes saw a larger rise in retail sales compared to the surrounding area, according to a 2014 New York study

 

There are similarly powerful data sets about how cycling reduces sick days (13 fewer each year, worth £128m to the annual national economy), saves the NHS in treatment costs (£1.7bn over 25 years for 20 minutes of walking and cycling every day) and more about increased productivity and attracting and retaining staff.

 

The mall on the edge of town, surrounded by a sea of cars, may be losing its lustre, or at least should be, given the thrust towards sustainable development that the nation’s schoolchildren are recognising with their Friday protests up and down the land.

 

London, of course, is not like everywhere. As my recent visit to Cheshire showed, while towns and villages like Poynton have embraced the ‘shared space’ experiment (given to the latter by the late, highly respected Ben Hamilton-Baillie), car use and congestion is still prevalent (there’s a great film called Poynton Regenerated by Martin Cassini on YouTube.

 

 

Reworking the streetscape to create more space for walkers and cyclists has long elicited a muffled cry from shopkeepers keen to protect their bottom line. One Dublin study conducted in 2011 found businesses on two high streets overestimated driving customers and underestimated cyclists. The TfL report’s debunking of that financial myth is significant, especially taken in tandem with other changes to the high streets brought about by the rise of internet shopping and personal debt.

 

Mipim also heard how our high streets are morphing away from pure retail alone and towards ‘experience’. Even Westfield is now pondering over its £1.4bn scheme in Croydon, and how much of it should be mixed up with non-retail uses and perhaps different ‘anchor’ tenants, blaming Brexit and the changing high street for delaying the project.

 

High streets as the milieu for a mixed-use revitalisation could help push the ‘place’ agenda that fits with TfL and the Greater London Authority’s general thrust. “This is a fundamental change in our understanding of the planning, design and use of streets,” says the report, “but the benefits and/or problems that flow from this still need to be better understood.”

 

Reworking the streetscape to create more space for walkers and cyclists has long elicited a muffled cry from shopkeepers keen to protect their bottom line, so the report’s debunking of that financial myth is a significant one

 

Ultimately, it’s all about ‘feel’. For some, the experience of shopping and general ‘placeness’ in, say, Brighton’s relatively traffic-free Lanes are a world away from, say, Oxford Street’s polluted traipse. And while there is perhaps space for both, the general thrust is towards better, more attractive, and healthier town centres which can once again be places in which to sit, observe, dwell, and socialise.

 

As Hamilton-Baillie said of Poynton: “Shared space is not new; it’s the way streets have always been since we’ve had cities. It’s only in the past 50 years that we’ve believed it’s important to segregate traffic from other aspects of life.”

 

And now it pays to do so, too.

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