'City shopping footfall nosedives'

Today’s Press and Journal reports that the number of people visiting shopping areas in Scotland has nose-dived in the past year with a 9% drop in footfall. This comes as no surprise, but there is no pleasure in pointing out that this concern has been a recurring theme in this blog over the years.

In recent years our councils have done everything they could to discourage people coming into cities by car, cloaking their anti-car measures in a green mantle of environmentalism.

  • Up to 50% of road capacity at key pinch points has been removed and converted to bus lanes. Inevitably, this has created congestions where little existed before.
  • Car parking was restricted, in the hope that it would force people to find other ways into our cities.
  • Parking charges were increased to discourage parking.
  • More recently councils like Aberdeen City Council have introduced evening parking charges that have discouraged the use of late-night shopping and evening entertainment.

The trouble with all this is that, for most families, the car is the favoured form of transport. Discourage access by cars and – unless you have a really attractive alternative means of transport to tempt them into the city – the inevitable result is people will simply stop coming into our cities.

Union Square, Aberdeen
One of the reasons for the success of Union Square is that – once you have battled your way through the traffic – at least the parking is adequate and reasonably priced.

Why should they? There are plenty of stores online that happily take your money and deliver your shopping to you. No traffic queues, limited parking or parking charges to worry about. And, if it is a restaurant or window shopping you crave, there are plenty of places that have recognised the opportunity to provide out-of-town alternatives.

The irony of all this, is that the car has been demonised in the name of the environment. But, in any sensible planning horizon, car emissions will simply not be a valid concern.

In the next five to ten years, zero or ultra-low tailpipe emissions will be the norm. The new Euro standards are said to result in tailpipe emissions that are cleaner than the air in most offices! Zero emission vehicles are already in the showrooms and will surely become commonplace.

So, to save our city centres and shopping, we need some radical new thinking from our politicians.

City centres need to become welcoming places again, regardless of how people choose to travel, whether by car, or public transport.

That doesn’t mean flattening our cities to build new motorways. Traffic in Scotland no longer increasing, so sensible, less-intrusive schemes to ease traffic flow at key points could work wonders.

In the city centres themselves, as we have also said repeatedly, up to 50% of the traffic volume is created by people circulating to try to find somewhere to park!

Provide adequate, reasonably priced parking and you will not only encourage people back into the city, you will also dramatically reduce city centre congestion.

So, the action plan for the future of our city centres surely must be:

  1. Ease transport (including roads) to encourage visitors back into city centres.
  2. Provide adequate, reasonably priced parking.
  3. Invest in improving the city centre experience.
  4. Promote what is on offer.
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