Thursday, 24 January 2013

Supporting local shops, without more parking

"Adequate customer parking is essential to the viability of a local centre".

So says the Backwell Neighbourhood Plan, whilst at the same time proposing to convert an area of pavement outside the local shops into additional parking spaces.

But is this statement true? And could investment in safe cycling and walking routes actually do more to support the viability of local shops?

There's quite a lot of stuff out there suggesting that the economic benefits of investing in cycling infrastructure can be considerable, and appear to be underestimated by local & county councils and planners who at the same time overestimate the benefits of free parking.

Of course every place is different. There might be more justification, for example, in providing additional free car parking in a local centre which draws customers from a wide rural area which is poorly served by public transport, and is perhaps too hilly for most people to realistically cycle any distance to the centre. But this needs to be balanced with the entitlement of the residents of the village or town to enjoy a local centre which is not overwhelmed by traffic and retains a sense of place. If the balance isn't right, those residents may decide to jump in their own cars and, having done so, feel they might as well drive 10 miles as 2 miles, to shop at the nearest mall or large retail outlet.

So, what's the evidence? Much of the stuff you can find online relates to overseas studies, so may not be hugely persuasive at local level in the UK but it is nonetheless interesting.

This is an image you might have seen before, taken from a report by New York City's Department of Transportation in October 2012 (yes, I know this is Manhattan but still, an increase of 49% in retail sales for these two streets with protected bike lanes, compared to 3% borough-wide, is a pretty impressive statistic):

This image is taken from a Danish study in 2002 (link courtesy of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain):

This is from a more recent study in Oregon, USA; the three graphs below show:
  • total spending per shopping trip
  • total number of shopping trips per month
  • total estimate of spending per month
in each case divided into 4 categories of retail outlet (supermarkets, restuarants, pubs and convenience stores), and, broken down by transport mode (cycling is shown in brown, cars in black, walking in light green and public transport in dark green).
What's interesting is that there seems to be a strong correlation between the Danish and Oregon studies: on average, cyclists spend less per visit, but a similar or greater sum per week (Danish study) or per month (Oregon), when compared to drivers (the Oregon study actually shows that, in convenience stores, cyclists spend about the same as drivers per visit).

Of course given that cycling has a much lower modal share than driving, especially in the UK, shopkeepers' total income from car drivers will be perceived to be greater and hence shopkeepers may be under the impression that the only way to increase trade is to court yet more drivers via increased free parking.

The reason why I say perceived is that, as the Danish study shows, and other studies confirm, retailers greatly overestimate the proportion of their customers who have arrived by car and underestimate the proportion who have come on foot, and, to a lesser extent, by bike. Here's an image courtesy of Sustrans, which brings things a bit closer to home:

Note that whereas the shopkeepers thought that 41% of their customers came by car, in fact only 22% actually did so - a near 50% overestimate!

Anyhow, because of this (false) perception, it's perhaps understandable why retailers may focus on the 'need' for additional car parking, and be indifferent to proposals for better facilities for cyclists or pedestrians - or even hostile if they perceive these to be at the expense of existing parking spaces, or plans to increase the number of parking spaces. 

The Danish and US studies suggest that providing better facilities for cyclists and pedestrians has the potential to provide a greater boost to local shops, especially convenience stores, when compared to additional parking - even leaving aside the external costs which such parking may impose in the form of increased traffic congestion, pollution etc. which of course aren't accounted for in the retailer's profit & loss accounts.

Indeed, in some cases providing additional parking may not result in any increase in trade and could even damage trade where the net effect is to produce a local centre which has lost it's sense of place, and is no longer somewhere that people actually want to linger, to meet other people, and to spend money. Look around at the many high streets and local centres which have boarded up shops and you will see that the problem is not a lack of parking but rather a lack of people actually spending time (and money) there.

In the light of this, what are we to make of the statement in the draft Plan below?

"Adequate customer parking is essential to the viability of a local centre"

It all comes down to what we mean by "adequate" of course. Having no parking at all may indeed threaten the viability of a local centre, where a significant proportion of shoppers travel from a wide rural catchment. It's all about maintaining a healthy balance between parking on the one hand, and preserving or enhancing a sense of place on the other. Any genuinely objective assessment of what is "adequate" should allow for the possibility of taking some existing car parking spaces away and increasing the space made over to cyclists and pedestrians.

Unfortunately in putting forward plans to increase the number of parking spaces at the expense of an area of pavement, there's no indication that such an objective assessment has been made, in spite of the draft Plan claiming to be evidence-based. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that this is what the statement really means:

"Additional customer parking is essential to the viability of a local centre"

For the reasons above, there are much stronger grounds to conclude that: 

"Additional cycling and pedestrian facilities, promoting a strong sense of place, are essential to the viability of a local centre"

If such additional facilities lead to an increase in the number of local residents who travel to the local shops by bike or on foot, fewer will take up the existing parking spaces, which in turn frees up those spaces for people coming by car from the wider rural catchment and may therefore induce more of those people to shop in the local centre as opposed to elsewhere, confident that they will get a space.

A virtuous circle in which there are no losers.

PS If you want to read a really persuasive article on why more town centre parking is daft, you can do no better than to read the blog item here. For a better summary of the evidence (or lack of it) in favor of more and/or free parking, click here and here.

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