Is a low-traffic high street bad for trade?

The main argument for re-opening Mill Road bridge was that restricting traffic over it damaged local business. As well as making deliveries more awkward, some Mill Road traders argued that their customers were put off and that they lost revenue as a result. This is a common idea – but it’s not based on evidence. In fact, the opposite is true!

The bus gate on Mill Road bridge was created in order to fit in with the government’s desire to increase social distancing for pedestrians and cyclists and for a ‘greener recovery’. It was a product of lockdown. Lockdown nationally has been very bad news for local businesses: footfall has been reduced to 45% and internet sales have rocketed to 33% of all retail sales. Some people are working more from home, and this has also changed shopping and eating habits. Whatever national trends are, on Mill Road it’s impossible to separate any effect the bridge might have had from the effect generally of lockdown.

So, from the start, it’s really hard to sustain the claim that the lack of vehicles over the bridge has been bad for trade. And it’s even harder when we look at evidence from (pre-lockdown) low-traffic high streets elsewhere.

The Netherlands is famous for its bikes. In Utrecht, which has a low-traffic centre, surveys showed that per visit, car drivers spent the most in a shop. But, per week, cyclists and pedestrians spent more – much more – than car drivers.

This may come as a surprise to shopkeepers, because, when asked, they tend massively to overestimate the number of their customers who come by car. In two shopping streets in Dublin and in one area of Bristol, shopkeepers were asked to guess what proportion of customers came by car. Their guesses – and the actual figures – are in the graphs below. You can see how wrong they were. In Bristol, the number of people coming by car was half what shopkeepers thought. In both cities, shops were visited much, much more by people on foot, bikes and public transport. Cars don’t really make much custom for local shops.

Bristol shoppers – estimated and real
Dublin shoppers – estimated and real

The high street in Lewes, Sussex, goes from the banks of the river Ouse right up to the Downs. The river end, Cliffe High Street, is pedestrianised – and it’s thriving as a result. Cars and vans are allowed in certain areas of it for loading and unloading, and there is some disabled parking. Cyclists do use the high street, but it’s slow going because of the throngs of pedestrians. Up the hill on Lewes High Street, it’s a different picture. This is a vehicle thoroughfare and there is seldom a break in traffic. Shops here are quiet, and there is a quicker turnover than down the hill in Cliffe. Some Lewes residents are campaigning for a better shopping experience by restricting traffic through the centre of the town.

In the period between the easing of the lockdown and the continued restrictions on Mill Road bridge, a cafe culture erupted. Pavements were full of eaters and drinkers, content with a convivial, traffic-free environment. Some cafes have found an increase in footfall. Since the re-opening of the bridge, drinking a coffee outside has become a noisier pastime: it’ll be interesting to see what effect this has had on numbers of cafe customers.

To sum up, all the available evidence (and there’s lots more than we’ve seen on this blog) suggests that cutting cars, vans and lorries actually increases local trade. As well as a big environmental win, a low-traffic Mill Road could be a big win for business.