Time for transport policy to get in touch with its inner hipster?

Something is happening to our bland, branded up high streets in the same way that something fundamental is happening to our urban economies. The hipsters have arrived.

Sure, Greggs and Virgin Money and all the other high street chains have most of the prime spots locked up but springing up everywhere, and at quite a rate, are shops, bars, cafes, barbers (or a fusion of all of them behind one artful plate glass window) which are ‘artisan this’ and ‘craft that’.. valuing the authentic, the independent, and the culturally and digitally savvy.

And behind those shaken up high streets, in former industrial areas and repurposed office blocks, similar preferences inform the wider ‘flat white economy’ or ‘new economy’ (the communications, information, digital and media economy) which is also surging. After all, most people are on some kind of computer most of their work and leisure time – the digital natives, and there’s money in it.

And just as for those (that can afford the prices) who are shifting away from boring chain stores in the high street for shopping, so too is a linked shift away from dull isolated business parks for working – at least for the refuseniks or those with the skills the booming new economy needs. All of which helps explain why more new economy businesses want exciting urban locations where ideas and talent can spark off each other rather than fizzle out in sterile suburbs, malls and business parks. In doing so, the new economy also joins the financial and legal sector which has always preferred to cluster in city centres.

What does all this mean for transport? Urban Transport Group’s latest report Banks, bytes and bikes explores this issue.

Much of existing transport policy has been predicated on the economic value that can be derived from reducing journey times between point A and point B. The not unreasonable argument being that reducing the time and cost of moving goods, people and services is good for the economy. This in turn has tended to favour ‘inter’ rather than ‘intra’ urban transport projects. After all that’s what business says it wants isn’t it? It’s certainly what a lot of business wants. But not necessarily what all business now wants to give overriding priority to. It’s not just greenies that are now prioritising making places interesting and accessible by active travel and mass transit, over traffic speeds and volumes – it’s the Corporation of the City of London. And it’s not just in European cities that this is happening – it’s in the USA too – as a fascinating contribution from the American Passenger Transportation Association to our report shows.

But it would be wrong to replace one monolithic view of what business wants on transport with another. It would also be wrong to ignore the needs of the thousands of employers and millions of people who do not work in city centres and who also work in less celebrated or in vogue sectors of the economy (such as  retail, catering and hospitality). This is one reason why we will be following up this report with one on urban towns later this year. However, a valid challenge from this report remains – which is: is it time for urban transport policy to better reflect the priorities of the new economy, and as part of that get more in touch with its inner hipster?

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