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Our schizophrenic attitude to driving and shopping

Paul Finch

The attitude that cars are the enemy helps explain why high streets are dying on their feet, writes Paul Finch

Shutterstock traffic

Shutterstock traffic

It is 25 years since John Gummer, as environment secretary, famously banned out-of-town shopping in favour of strengthening city centres and high street environments. That policy was as welcome as it was unexpected, since it marked the rejection of hollowed-out city centres on the US model in favour of a more traditional notion of the European city as a place of social engagement, not simply where you did your shopping. There was also an implicit critique of a society becoming increasingly dependent on the private car.

How curious that the rise and rise of internet shopping (and web-based transport providers like Uber) has resulted in more traffic on our streets, not less; that high streets seem to be under as much threat as familiar store names like Debenhams and House of Fraser; and that retail parks resembling shopping malls show few signs of diminishing. It only goes to show that, when it comes to planning, you can only do your best with the available evidence. It is unwise to try to second-guess history – we might note that internet shopping is only a new form of what mail order companies invented in the 19th century. 

One certainty, however, is that retail opportunities and pitfalls almost inevitably involve an attitude to the car and to parking, on which subject we have been pursuing contradictory policies for as long as cars have existed. It is sometimes forgotten that the first out-of-town shopping centres, developed in Los Angeles in the 1920s, were a response to severe parking restrictions established by municipal authorities, heavily swayed by the railroad interest. Bans on street parking led first to the innovation of multi-storey car parks, then, inexorably, to the idea of building malls, where drivers were welcomed, rather than vilified. 

Providing facilities for cyclists creates congestion, pollution and frustration for drivers who are the ones paying for the unoccupied cycle lanes

The attitude that cars are enemies helps to explain why high streets and secondary or tertiary shopping areas in UK towns and cities are dying on their feet. Street parking is treated as a form of social leprosy, while the surface car parks supplied by supermarket chains are assumed to be a social good, even if they result in independent shopkeepers being driven out of business. And when will large-scale supermarkets build homes on top of them, as proposed by Bill Dunster? What are they waiting for?

In popular city areas, of course, councils allow parking but charge rates that mean meters are earning close to, if not exceeding, hourly minimum wages. Add to that the nutty policy of letting local authorities keep fines for overstaying on a meter or venturing into box junctions cynically designed to trap the unwary and you have simultaneous encouragement and discouragement, an affront to rational traffic planning. 

You might also add the scandalous waste of money, at least in parts of London, of providing free facilities for the white ‘mamil’ population (Middle-Aged Men In Lycra) which creates congestion, pollution and frustration for drivers who are the ones paying for the unoccupied cycle lanes. (By the way, cyclist trolls, I am not on Twitter, so you can stick any poisonous responses to your Brooks saddle and sit on them.)

Our schizophrenic attitude to cars, parking and retail explain the desperation with which the owners of Heathrow wish to expand. I was reminded by a former local authority planning officer last week that the Terminal 5 planning inspector’s report said that approval should only be given on the basis that the airport would expand no further. Let’s face it, Terminal 5 probably wouldn’t have happened without its retail accompaniment, airports being an example of out-of-town shopping centres which cleverly side-step John Gummer’s planning policy. Bigger airports equal more retail rental. They do, of course, have ample parking.


Readers' comments (3)

  • Check it out -- Finally some clarity:

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  • Ben Ridley

    I think that your second last paragraph is misleading. Do you have any evidence that facilities for cyclists in parts of London are a ‘scandalous waste of money’? I cycle in London daily and in my experience cycle lanes are very well used.

    I also think that the ‘Middle-Aged Men In Lycra’, generalisation in this article is unhelpful when discussing the cost / benefit of cycle infrastructure. There may be (very slightly) fewer female cyclists, older cyclists and young cyclists in London. However, this is likely due to the fact that people feel vulnerable on our roads. Diversity is improved when cycle lanes are added. As an example, on Quietway 1, the new route linking Waterloo with Greenwich, the proportion of women has risen from 29 per cent to 35 per cent.

    You can't, therefore, complain about a not diverse enough “white mamil population” and then say that too much money is being spent on improving road safety for cyclists. If the aim is to increase the diversity of cyclists then clearly we should be investing even more in cycle lanes and infrastructure to make cycling more appealing for those who feel more vulnerable.

    Part of this sense of vulnerability is due to the tiny minority - say 1 in 10,000 drivers who feel that cyclists are not entitled to use the road and therefore behave aggressively toward them. These drivers are encouraged by the following kind of statements in your article: “free facilities for cyclists”, “drivers who are the ones paying for the unoccupied cycle lanes” which suggest that cyclists are a group of undeserving road users because they don’t pay ‘road’ tax.

    For clarity, ’road’ tax (VED) is not used to pay for roads, nor is it used to pay for cycle lanes. It is a tax on car emissions. Roads are paid for out of general and local taxation. Motorists don’t pay for roads, we all pay for roads. We all have equal right to use them. Even if cyclists were assessed for VED, bicycles, as non-polluting vehicles, would be classified as Band A vehicles and hence would have to pay the same as pure electric cars: absolutely nothing.

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  • Car emissions are taxed via fuel duties not road tax. Road tax allows drivers to use the road, cyclist don't pay it. Let's not argue about facts.

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