How active travel routes can help grow economic activity in our town and city centres. 

As we return to office life and adjust to new hybrid working arrangements, we are witnessing first-hand the significant impact of the COVID 19 pandemic on our town and city centres.

Coffee shops, restaurants and shops we previously visited on a lunch break or after work have disappeared in ghost-like fashion, leaving derelict units and empty grey streets in their place.

However, as restrictions are removed and we start to look forward to how things might look in the months and years ahead, there is reason for optimism. Particularly for retail.

A rejuvenation of our town and city centres, which is critical to the retail sector, is anticipated - albeit in a different form.  Active travel schemes will play a fundamental role in that process.

Active travel, the process by which people walk, wheel, scoot or cycle during their everyday journeys, isn’t a new concept. It has however been brought into sharper focus by the global climate crisis and the recent pandemic.

Funding for active travel is currently at an all-time high.

The Scottish Government has committed to spend at least £320 million on active travel by 2024 -2025.

In February this year, it was announced that works to construct the landmark walking and cycling route linking the east and west of Edinburgh were finally underway.

Once complete, the £19.4 million project will provide an essential link between key parts of city and significantly improve streetscape along the way.

Last month, Glasgow City Council confirmed approval, following a public consultation, of its Active Travel Strategy which is to be rolled out over the next ten years.

Over 270km of high quality cycleways and improved footways are to be added to the City’s main roads. The plan is for schools to be within 400m of the main active travel routes and homes no more than 800m from segregated cycling infrastructure.

The network will build on the segregated routes already established along key routes in Glasgow and the city centre. Ultimately the new active travel network will allow anyone who cycles to reach most of the city within 30 minutes and almost all of the city within an hour.

More recently (and perhaps more controversially), the Council announced plans to exclude the most polluting cars from its city centre as part of its low emission zone strategy.

All of this sits alongside the Council’s place-making “Avenues” scheme to transform 21 key streets and adjacent areas in Glasgow city centre. An ambitious £115 million project which is intended to tackle carbon emissions and  increase economic activity by creating more pedestrian and cycling spaces and adding more greenery.

The objective of these projects, and many others like them which are being rolled out across the UK, is simple. To transform our neighbourhoods, towns and city centres into more inclusive and attractive places for residents, businesses and visitors by reducing inequalities, taking climate action, helping to deliver economic growth and improving health and well being. 

In practice this means better use of public spaces, and a reallocation of road space in favour more sustainable active travel modes.  Segregated walking, wheeling and cycling spaces and well-integrated public transport hubs. Coherent cycle networks and safe and secure cycle parks. New charging points for electric vehicles and bike hire stations. Better connected communities, reduced traffic congestion and improved road safety. Improved pedestrian infrastructure including benches and resting opportunities, clear footways, pedestrian crossings and dropped kerbs. Improved walking environments, better air quality and healthier citizens.

So will all of this provide a much-needed boost for our retail sector?

Redesigning and rebalancing our streets to prioritise active travel will make them more desirable places to be. High Streets and city centres that are pleasant places to walk, cycle and spend time in attract footfall, consumer spending and economic activity. All of which creates fertile environments for retailers to prosper.

In Transport for London’s Walking and Cycling document from July 2019, which is based on various studies carried out by its partners including Sustrans and Cycling UK, the many economic benefits of walking and cycling are noted.

Walking and cycling improvements can increase retail spend by up to 30%. Such conditions also allow up to 5% more people to pass by at peak times. The installation of cycle lanes benefit nearby retail footfall by up to 40%.  Employees who engage in active travel are found to take 27% fewer sick days. Where cycle parking exists the retail spend per square metre increases five fold when compared with the same area of car parking. The list goes on.

The knock-on effect is a boost for landlords, with retail rental values increasing as well as the number of retailers.

As active travel routes are rolled out we are likely to see a change in where businesses and retailers locate themselves.

We may see a move away from out-of-town retail parks to spaces which are closer to active travel routes where they are more visible, and outdoor seating within more relaxed and comfortable surroundings is possible.

As a resident, retail lawyer and keen cyclist of Glasgow it is encouraging to see the steps our city is taking to promote active travel.

Having recently hosted the global COP26 Conference, and with the forthcoming World Cycling Championships just around the corner, this a great opportunity for Glasgow to create a positive legacy and bring much-needed vibrancy back to our streets and retail sector.

To find out more about Burness Paull LLP and the services they provide to the retail industry, click here.

This article was also published in The Retailer, our quarterly online magazine providing thought-leading insights from BRC experts and Associate Members.