Retailing is changing rapidly – but what is passenger transport’s role?

 
Covid-19 schemes have been opportunist and laudable for walking and cycling but haven’t done much for buses. In Aberdeen, bus services have been barred from the city’s Union Street thoroughfare

 
What we buy and how we buy it is changing rapidly. For some years we have shifted from physically going to the shops to buying virtually anything online. Some shops merely exist to provide an exploratory window after which customers go home to make their purchase via the internet. They are spurred on by loyalty and promotional schemes, arguably with some control over the choices available or at least straightforward information about pricing and deliveries. The means by which we access retailing, apparently a leisure activity for some people, has changed, with out-of-centre shopping malls being designed for access by car and with less visibility and convenience for public transport users (either consumers or workers). Most indoor shopping centres have conspicuous car parking but inconspicuous bus facilities, some of which can be surprisingly hard to find.

Changed behaviour

We have moved from the concept of a high street for local shopping co-existing with numerous retail agglomerations towards an economy that revolves around the internet. Food shopping, something of a necessity, can be done without leaving home and the recent pandemic lockdown proved that this could be very successful for both retailers and consumers. Having had to allocate deliveries on a priority basis showed that demand was strong and this might have become more established.

In the not-so-distant past, many bus users chose to go shopping by bus as it took them into retail locations, avoiding the joys of finding a car parking space or giving them a means of travel if they didn’t have access to a car. Despite popular perceptions, people who shop by bus spend the same or more than people arriving by car – buses are good for business. Another assumption is that shops need parking which in some cases exists in abundance with massive car parks in, beneath or next to shops.

In contrast, buses may be excluded to the periphery, often to an undesirable location with featureless buildings such as the back of shops or even worse, near the delivery bays and bin stores.

Bit by bit the bus has been squeezed out of many centres, being regarded as unsavoury or unsafe

Increasing footfall is a basic measure of success. In many places this has involved pedestrianising streets to avoid the uncomfortable mix of people and vehicles, conveniently overlooking the fact that many people are contributing to the traffic they are seeking to avoid. The problem with high streets is traffic in terms of safety, noise, congestion, pollution and intrusion which rather flies in the face of the retail advocates who want to put car parks everywhere. Early pedestrianisation schemes were tentative and experimental, often with tentative schemes in place or months before permanent street features were set out. Although this eradicated cars, it also meant re-routing buses, sometimes inconveniently; some towns retained an uncomfortable mix of buses in the walking environment although more recently many have succumbed, expelling buses to the margins. Bit by bit the bus has been squeezed out of many centres, being regarded as unsavoury or unsafe.

For example, I remember Eastbourne in the 1970s when the bus stops moved away from the railway station entrance and then were moved on again once pedestrianisation took hold. Out went convenience and visibility in the face of progress. Even London’s Oxford Street, regarded as the busiest retail corridor anywhere, retains its buses and there are regular efforts to clear the street of traffic and put the buses where users can’t find them. In principle it is possible and experimental closure to traffic has shown the benefits to shoppers, but it needs to be done carefully with clear signing to bus stops.

Recent experimentation

Temporary changes have been introduced in many areas during the pandemic to support more walking and cycling, providing more space. ‘Pop-up’ cycle lanes and wider footways have appeared, some with more logical applications than others. In some cases this has been to the detriment of buses as they compete with diminished space with other traffic. However, this is real-life modelling provided that the same benefits apply when life returns to the new normal. In some instances traffic will bounce back to previous levels, supported by declining petrol prices, free parking and government advice to avoid mixing with anyone using public transport.

The value of the bus seems to have increased with the public and some operators espousing their role of providing transport for key workers but this has not been reflected on the ground by creating better bus priority measures

Many streets allocate most of the space to traffic, mainly cars. Taking away some of it in favour of walking and cycling is no bad thing but there are also opportunities to reallocate space to buses. The value of the bus seems to have increased with the public and some operators espousing their role of providing transport for key workers but this has not been reflected on the ground by creating better bus priority measures. Covid-19 schemes have been opportunist and laudable for walking and cycling but haven’t done much for buses. Some easy wins may have been overlooked, partly as a result of traditionalists who don’t understand how urban areas function and how bus services could be much improved.

Return to the high street?

Now some retail malls are in trouble with owners facing major financial problems and even their most popular sites are struggling; one leading owner, intu, has gone into administration. Out-of-centre shopping is not what it was and some centres may succumb to declining occupancy and higher costs. As the owner of Manchester’s Trafford Centre, intu is facing some difficult decisions, ironically just as the latest Metrolink extension arrives to provide relief for the regular traffic congestion. Other retail proposals are being shelved and anchor stores such as Debenhams and John Lewis are in retreat. Some retail malls such as that in Welwyn Garden City even include a rail station with others well served by public transport of all kinds, including Sheffield Meadowhall. If these out-of-centre clusters are facing a downturn, then bus, tram and train demand will too.

Providing access to town centre retail offers by bus helps them to survive and prosper in a particularly favourable way without traffic congestion and pollution

This might suggest that there is hope for a resurgence of interest in the high street. Many familiar names have packed up following the demise of Woolworth, being unresponsive to changing demands. Interestingly Primark, one apparent success, has no online business and there were queues on the reopening of their stores as lockdown is eroded. Most high streets have taken a beating with many units unoccupied and their appeal diminishing by the day. This presents something of a paradox: there appears to be demand for independent and artisan shops and markets but a decline in local retailing. Specialists shops are often incompatible with larger shopping centres and are ideally suited to a more personable scale of retailing. Farmers markets and similar are hugely popular, a challenge to the offer of the regular stores. Providing access to town centre retail offers by bus helps them to survive and prosper in a particularly favourable way without traffic congestion and pollution.

Changing purchases

The closure of all but essential shops through the lockdown revealed that many of the items bought are not really necessary. Even online retailers had lines that became unavailable because their production had stalled and demand had dropped. Perhaps there is a lurking sense of sustainability with people buying more of what they need and less of everything else. It appears that many people have been re-evaluating their wardrobes with a deluge of used clothing arriving at charity shops. In some ways this is no bad thing and is an example of re-using rather than throwing away. Charity shops, pound stores, tanning salons, cafes and nail bars have emerged to replace the familiar retailers, presenting the high street in a different way.

There are lots of ways of dealing with empty shop units such as conversion for other purposes. These could include offices (assuming a downsizing migration from big costly premises to smaller units) and homes. Living above the shop could reappear as living among the shops. Other users could include gyms and similar. A shift from zoning urban centres for retailing and not much else could be a success, with more people living centrally, taking advantage of good transport services to meet the needs of the new economy.

The need for transport hasn’t gone away but the form that it takes will need to adapt.

 
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nick Richardson is Technical Principal at transport consultancy Mott MacDonald, a Director of the UK Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (www.ciltuk.org.uk), Chair of CILT’s Bus and Coach Policy Group, Chair of PTRC Education and Research Services Ltd and a former Chair of the Transport Planning Society. In addition, he has held a PCV licence for over 30 years.

 
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