On the road to reinventing the high street, scrapping pedestrianisation is a backwards step

Alan Partridge immortalised a pioneering transport innovation when in a 1997 episode he asked his radio audience: “What do you think about the pedestrianization of Norwich city centre?”.   London Street in Norwich was restricted to traffic as long ago as 1967, and was the first pedestrianisation in the UK (there is an article with great photos here).   Today Norwich is one of the most vibrant city centres in the UK bucking the trend of decline elsewhere.

Partridge added: “I’ll be honest, I’m dead against it. People forget that traders need access to Dixons”.

There is of course more to Norwich’s success that simply reclaiming its medieval thoroughfares. Norwich has embraced a vibrant street culture encouraging busking and street activity. The city offers a mix of independent boutique stores alongside big retail.  The streets contain bars, restaurants and civic ammenites such as a major library,  cultural centre and bus station located in the middle of town. Unsurprisingly, Norwich city centre is heaving all weekend, with a diverse crowd of all ages.  House of Fraser is not closing in Norwich.

Norwich City Centre is largely free of traffic

 

Much of this street life is enabled by traffic calmed routes – its part of the equation of a successful city centre. Active, people centred streets must be free of stressful, dangerous, polluting traffic. At the same time, city centres need to be accessible and herein lies and obvious tension given the poor state of public transport across most UK cities: people generally need to drive in.

Does the survival of town centres matter? Shopping on the high street encourages walking in a society plagued by inactivity. It promotes human contact as loneliness rises, especially among vulnerable groups. Town centres usually offer the greatest connection with heritage and culture within an urban area. As town centres become less attractive businesses struggle and locales enter a death spiral. The loss will be to communities and ultimately poor health.

Its obvious that online shopping is massively eroding high street turnovers and there is a separate conversation around tax avoidance of some online retailers unfairly distorting the market at the expense of high street stores. Scott Galloway, author of “The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google points out that Amazon and co have access to a bottomless pit of cheap capital which is another hugely distorting impact.  Add to this the stagnation of real incomes for a large chunk of society over the past is reducing discretionary spending across the board and you see why town centres are struggling. Arguably too there is a societal movement away from spending on possessions towards enjoying experiences, which underlines the need to diversify city centres.

It is indicative of a outmoded mindset that on the day House of Fraser listed the closure of its flagship store that Westminster council has announced it is blocking the Oxford street pedestrianization. There may be some specific issues in this case around bus rerouting but overall it looks like a short sighted decision out of step with the times.  Pedestrianisation would support healthier living, reduce pollution and provide opportunities to diversify the street.  The current levels of pollution are illegal and pose a huge health risk to shoppers and workers alike.  Oxford Street is also an accident hotspot.  We will wait to see what Westminster’s proposals are but it looks like a poor outcome especially dangerously polluted, dangerous, embarrassment to modern London. 

Cities around Europe are reducing traffic in cities.  Barcelona is pedestrianising parts of the Eixample grid (Superblocks), Paris is building a promenade along the banks of the Seine and folks are now playing chess on the Times Square.  The London Mayors Transport Strategy – devotes many of its pages to Living Streets, a blueprint for streets to contribute to healthy living.  Westminster is an outlier.

Times Square has been cleared of traffic, providing new opportunities to use the space

Nurturing  our town centres into healthy, living, diverse spaces will ensure their survival against the tide of change in retail habits.  Its vital that we press on with sensible changes to the allocation of road space in cities.

 

Why the built environment is key to the obesity epidemic.

We learnt this week that 70% of millennials will be overweight when they turn 30, type 2 diabetes has doubled in the last 20 years ,  and that the OECD think Britain as one of the fattest nations in Europe. We all know the cure is a magic combination of healthy eating and activity more but despite increased awareness and a vast sports sector (UK has more people working in sport than any country), obesity is growing to be a national epidemic.  There is welcome debate about sugar taxes and the proliferation of junk food outlets, but on the other side of the coin it is stubbornly hard to increase mass participation in sport despite inspirational Olympic performances.  Many people are just too busy to squeeze in sport (long hours, long commutes).

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Rail season ticket decline is not a rebellion against high fares, but a change to working lifestyles

Rail season ticket sales are massively down on last year – possibly by nearly 10%.  It is tempting to put this down to increases in fares, or dampening of the economy.  These are good reasons, but cannot alone account for such a drop in demand for travel.  Fares increases should be softening the market, but the precipitous decline seems unlikely to be explained by this alone.  London Underground, which has enjoyed a real terms fares decrease, whilst managing much better than  the train operating companies , has suffered slower commuting growth than expected.  Meanwhile, off-peak walk up income has grown by 3.7% – despite also suffering the regulated fares increases.   My hunch is that commuters are going into the office less and buying other tickets, and in the process saving a bit of money and a lot of hassle.  The five day commuter is a dying breed.  The background to this and its implications  are significant.  Let me explain…

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Why air pollution is holding back the most disadvantaged kids

Analysis released today by The Guardian and Greenpeace, showing that over a thousand  schools are located near dangerously polluted roads, is a welcome contribution to the growing concern about impacts of air pollution in cities (a map and list of polluted schools can be found here). Traffic pollution is bad for all residents and workers in cities, but there is a social dimension which is still getting patchy acknowledgement: traffic is strangling social mobility.  Its not just that schools are dangerously polluted, but the poorest pupils are the most exposed, and this affects health and academic outcomes.

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Disconnected networks & the rail replacement bus

Too many regions in the UK suffer unreliable rail networks, due to lack of connectivity and redundancy. This is exposed  each weekend when thousands of passengers suffer the ordeal of the rail replacement bus. The truth is that too much of the UK rail network scores poorly on measures of network robustness and connectivity and whole regions are vulnerable to the loss of single links – planned or otherwise.  What can we learn from other networks, such as the internet, or the brain of a roundworm to make our networks more robust?

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Millennials and the polycentric workplace

Workplaces in the UK are reaching a tipping point.  More bosses are recognising the benefits of flexible working, and more staff are realising they can be more productive varying their location.  According to Lancaster University’s Work Foundation 30% of workplaces allow flexible hour and this will increase to 50% by 2020.  The five day, routine point to point commute will no longer be the norm.

The reasons are diverse and fast-moving.  Part-time and self-employment in the knowledge economy is growing.  Millennials are taking a more relaxed approach to physical work-space, and companies, realising the potential  savings are enacting clear desk and locker policies.   Vodaphone estimate that UK businesses could save £34bn by “freeing up desk space and working flexibly”.   The world kept spinning when staff worked from home during rail strikes and the 2012 Olympics, and  we are recognising the benefits of spending more time at home with family instead of on overcrowded transport networks.  New technologies with increasing internet access and cloud working are enablers.  It adds up to major changes to demand on transport networks –  operators and transport agencies need to adapt their business models.

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Google timeline is fascinating (and slightly terrifying)

Imagine video recording your entire life.  Some of your friends on Facebook may seem dead keen on doing this (and sometimes on behalf of their very young offspring), but few have gone whole-hog and stuck a webcam to their forehead for posterity (or ex-post analysis).  To be honest, I’m not sure I’d want to relive my less sober nights in high definition, but sometimes I regret not getting some recording of the key moments especially ones taken for granted.  So I for one was delighted to discover today that unbeknown to me Google has been stitching together my every move for the last three years (actually I had a deep suspicion this was happening).  Every journey, from the mundane local food shop, going to the cinema, or staggering up Everest Base camp – its all there, along with some attempts to assign transport mode to journeys.

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Ipswich expanded town: missed opportunity or lucky escape?

Residents of Suffolk might lament the influx of Londoners as house prices in the Southeast push the London commuter bubble well into East Anglia.  But in 1966 Shankland, Cox and Associates (SC&A) were commissioned by Harold Wilson’s government to plan an expansion of Ipswich to accommodate at least an additional 70,000 Londoners.  The plan never came to fruition, as other New Towns were built instead.   Two elements of the Ipswich expansion debate have left  legacy of traffic congestion on  Ipswich today – a hot topic of conversation in the town.  The first was the advise, by at least two independent consultants to develop to the West was not followed through.  The second was an assumption that the road network within Ipswich would be upgraded whichever side of Ipswich was developed.  What actually happened was incremental expansion in most directions, but especially to the East and no new road provision into the town centre.

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From Suffolk to China: Zipf’s law in action

In any country  if you rank all the cities by population, these populations will follow the same pattern worldwide.  The law is so strong that you could use this as a geeky party trick: give me the population of the largest city in a country and I will tell you the population of the 50th largest.  It is a remarkable feature of cities that their populations follow not only follow a power law, but that the distribution is identical across the planet.

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