The high street retail apocalypse (and should public transport learn to stop worrying about it?)

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I took the temperature of the debate about the future of UK city and town centres at a packed out Key Cities conference this week. Here’s what I learned…

Is the end nigh for the high street?

Most things are still bought in shops, however high street retail is clearly in retreat as on-line sales go up. It’s big-medium centres rather than the very largest city centres that are being hardest hit by this trend as the surviving big high street names hole up in the core cities. Out-of-town superstores and retail parks are also under threat from the retail apocalypse as why would you pick your items from the racks of a big retail shed when a robot will do it for you from a distribution shed and then have it delivered to your door? As one speaker said, “we are moving from retail which revolves around the car to retail which revolves around the phone”. And then there’s the retail jobs apocalypse as many of the high street stores that remain do away with cashiers in favour of contactless payment.

Given the above, there was a strong consensus that plans for town and secondary city centres can no longer be based on retail. And retail also needs to be about more than selling stuff. It is now about attracting people to visit town centres for an experience – because if you are having a good experience you will probably buy something. If you aren’t then you will buy it online. What is the unique story of this place? Why is this place different? Retail was all about making every high street look the same. Now it’s about making everywhere look different. It’s the fresh food emporium (hosting multiple independent outlets and cafes) which will be the anchor of the town centre – not the big name department store.

‘Right sizing’ was another key phrase – as in some town and city centres are just too big for what’s now needed. Right-sizing retail can also mean making room for more housing in town centres – which can also bring more life to them. Though the problem for many towns and secondary cities is that too much of what residential there currently is can be student, poor quality or high end. The housing and social mix is missing.

There’s clearly unfair competition from our tax dodging, smug, wannabe overlords of the internet and the moves the Government has made so far on retail business rates don’t go far enough to redress the balance.

What does all this mean for public transport?

In principle, less shopping trips (particularly into secondary centres) is bad news for the bus, especially because a lot of them are made on the bus. However, as secondary centres shift their focus to making themselves into more distinctive and attractive places to spend time in then, can the bus also align itself with this rediscovery of local pride and identity? Instead of a ‘by the numbers’ corporate brand that happens to serve this particular place, what about bus services that have that places identity running through them like Blackpool through a stick of rock, which are all over the annual events programme of that place and whose branding is that of the place they serve?

Looking at both rail and bus there are also some big opportunities to be the catalyst for more housing in town and city centres either through building them into new or redeveloped stations and interchanges or through release of brownfield sites. There are also opportunities for stations to become destinations in their own right (through opening up redundant buildings to community, social or independent retail use). Magnificent Victorian station buildings can also become the stunning gateway to towns and cities that people want to visit.

A few final, and wider observations.

We can’t keep hammering the resources of local government and expect to get difficult challenges like turning around town centres done as efficiently, rapidly and well as it needs to be. As someone said, local government is the ‘custodian of place’ and both the built heritage and the cultural capital of towns and secondary cities needs a lot of careful TLC. This needs people who feel valued, will stick with it for the long term and have the skills to do it.

There was very little discussion of ‘smart cities’ – much more interest in the material world of people, community and buildings.

The heavy focus on retail left a nagging doubt that the push to turn places into attractive destinations can sometimes feel like a push for sufficient gentrification of town and city centres so that nice middle class people like us can sell expensive coffee and such like to other nice middle class people like us. Yet, with one in five people in the UK below the poverty line (more in some of our towns and secondary cities), what is this agenda doing for them? All the key cities have far wider policies and programmes for tackling poverty and raising economic performance of course, which is good because towns won’t be fixed by expensive cups of coffee alone!

 

Overall there’s a sense that the collapse of more big retail names and the hollowing out of more high streets has elevated the issue to the first rank of domestic political concerns and galvanised some new thinking around reimagined town and secondary city centres. Public transport may also need to do some reimagining in order to stay relevant to high streets and town centres that are redefining their role as the phone supplants the car as the agent of retail revolution.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

Read our recent report About towns – How transport can help towns thrive

Tackling transport challenges, together

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People will always need to travel to places. So, there is a strong consensus around the need for high quality, integrated urban public transport networks that can support the greener, healthier and more prosperous city regions that we want to see. But the big question is how to sustain a public transport offer when passenger numbers are falling, congestion is rising and resources continue to reduce?

Cooperating in partnerships, with operators and local authorities, and working closely with other regions as the Urban Transport Group, to exchange intelligence and expertise, is one of the ways we can try to achieve more with less. But we need to recognise that responding to the challenges facing us isn’t a case of one size fits all. On the contrary, to stimulate growth, more than ever we now need to understand local markets, and their demands and needs, in order to meet them.

Investment is critical: investment in research into public travel patterns and preferences; investment in attractive infrastructure; and investment in people and embracing diversity, to sustain a strong industry workforce that strengthens the transport skill and knowledge base to generate new ideas and take a fresh approach.

Collective insight and analysis can help policy makers and providers offer modes of transport that are competitive with, or even better than, the alternative. Everyone’s familiar with the climate rhetoric, but more needs to be done to make the grass look greener if travel behaviour is to change. It’s about increasing awareness around the impact an individual’s travel choice has on the whole community, and the benefits an efficient and integrated public transport network can bring to all – by reducing congestion on roads, for bus users and car drivers, whilst contributing towards cleaner air and a healthier community.

Research shows that using public transport helps to integrate physical activity into a daily routine, because most walk or cycle to and from bus, tram or train stops. This is an easy way to try and achieve the British Heart Foundation’s recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. People who travel by bus, tram or train are ‘happier’ too, according to a study from the University of East Anglia – simply because they have more time for mindfulness, to relax and to concentrate on themselves.

Among other factors, we’re working against a rise in car ownership, a shift in people’s expectations for more bespoke and on demand services, fare prices, increased online shopping, different work patterns and reduced investment. All of this impacts on public transport. Given this environment, it’s vital that transport leaders influence and shape what’s in their backyard and maximise every opportunity to affect change. South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive (SYPTE) is supporting Sheffield City Region’s Mayoral Combined Authority in a bid for the Transforming Cities Fund, combining public transport improvements with a wider development and growth plan. Part of this would see investment in a cleaner fleet of buses. They’ll run on the most polluted corridors around the region, connecting people to employment and education, whilst contributing to air quality and congestion issues. It’s a step in the right direction. As is our Active Travel campaign, encouraging people to make small changes to the way they travel to bring big benefits for themselves and their environment.

In times of less resources, the way ahead is to share them. Together we can tackle the challenges to transform public transport. Today, and for future generations.

Stephen Edwards is Executive Director at SYPTE and the new Chair of Urban Transport Group

Read Stephen’s biography here

The secret life of the street – and what we need to know to make future streets work

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For a couple of years now I have been banging on about the need for a debate on future streets (i.e. about how best to reconcile the complexities of all the different calls on street space – or more accurately the space between the buildings).  So I am pleased to see that this is an issue that has now caught fire with two projects under the ‘future streets’ banner (one from ITS Leeds and one from UCL) as well as a London conference on future streets that we are sponsoring.

On Tuesday I took part in a seminar at the Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation (CIHT) on the outcomes, so far, of the ITS project which will hopefully result in guidance for authorities.

I thought reconciling the different demands on road space was complex before I went into the room. However, I left the room realising it was even more so than I had initially thought. I went in thinking that streets need to accommodate the different needs of different types of vehicles – buses, taxis, bicycles, powered two wheelers, cars, freight and logistics, as well as the different types of users including people with disabilities, and different objectives such as clean air, crime reduction, thriving high streets, reduced carbon emissions, provision for electric vehicles, provision of connected and autonomous vehicles, healthier streets and more…

However, all these are in principle broad brush issues. What the seminar taught me was that there are so many other variables – for example dealing with the unusual (funeral corteges, removal vans, deliveries that take time such as beer to pubs, skips). There is also street furniture, the paraphernalia that shops and cafes put in front of their premises, street beautification (raised planters, etc.), and emergency services needs. And all these complex needs and variables play out differently on different streets and at different times of the day.

ITS had an A3 sheet with a closely typed list of factors to consider (which got longer by the end of the day) when looking at the street of today – never mind the streets of the future. All of which suggests firstly the need for a more sophisticated and holistic approach to street management (rather than single issue, for example ‘we need to get a lot of EV chargers in ASAP’). Secondly, there is a need for more people to observe how each busy street operates now, to think deeply about how to make it work better (what trade offs need to be made on the basis of what priorities) and then make it happen (not forgetting the need for on-going management, enforcement, maintenance and adjustment).

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Here are five further thoughts from the day…

  1. Parking and loading regulation is shouty, complicated and often ambiguous (what happens if you park on a cycle lane? What is the status of the shop forecourt in front of the shop but behind the curb line?). This can lead to people going round what they see as the regulated parts of the road space (even free parking bays) and parking on what they see as sitting outside the regulated areas (including pavements). Bus lanes can often be something that people see as very clearly a regulated and enforced space – which leads to the phenomena of people not driving in bus lanes even when they are not in operation. Some drivers are perhaps pavement parking out of consideration for their fellow drivers (i.e. to make space for them to park or pass) without thinking about the impacts on pedestrians. All of which suggests there could be a need for more research into the deeper reasons behind what makes drivers do what they do (including etiquette, peer pressure, fear of embarrassment, etc.).
  2. A lot of British streetscapes are so ugly and dilapidated that drivers may be making the unconscious decision that some ugly parking behaviour isn’t going to make them any worse.
  3. Physical signs and lines to regulate the road space create clutter, are not always read or understood by drivers and are inflexible (i.e. it is difficult to change the use of space at different times of the day or to allow two or more different functions for the same space). Digitalising the allocation and regulation of road space (including through geo-fencing) would make sense in that it would be clearer, more flexible and less ugly. However, the extent of data sharing necessary (and the knock on concerns about data ownership and privacy) is daunting.
  4. The current limitations on taxi and PHV pick up and drop off are few and mostly unobserved. If taxis and PHVs grow further then the problems caused by dropping off and picking up anywhere will grow. And how will taxi share work in practice if multiple taxis are trying to pick up / drop off different people from the same area of curb space?
  5. The enforcement of parking and loading regulation is constantly demonised by the media and by some politicians. But then the case is rarely made for it in a positive and pro-active way, and its complexity, ambiguities and its officious language and branding isn’t helping. Is there a need for a comprehensive rethink about how parking and loading restrictions and enforcement is communicated to the public as something that is there to help streets thrive and keep moving in a safe way? This is something that might relate to further research into how drivers feel about the regulation of streets.

Roll on the Future Streets conference on February 12. This is a topic where we need to revel in exploring all its complexities before we can make progress.

Jonathan Bray is Director of the Urban Transport Group.

You can find out more information and register for the Future Streets conference here.