Car keys not the key to retail success

The strongest opposition to the revitalisation of shopping streets—making them more attractive and accessible to more people by getting car parking out of the way—has always come from retailers.

They have repeatedly blocked moves for better, safer streets, insisting—against overwhelming evidence to the contrary—that most of their customers came by car.

When study after study showed this was untrue, why did retailers keep their blindfolds over their eyes?

Well, the ugly truth is out: they overwhelmingly travel by car themselves.

The car parking they say is needed for their customers is actually for their own convenience.

The con is exposed in data revealed in a new study by Victoria Walks, Walking and Transport in Melbourne Suburbs.

"International research consistently finds that retailers under-estimate the number of people walking to their centre and over-estimate the number of people driving,” the report says.

"Two Melbourne studies looked at these perceptions, with the same outcome. For example, surveys on Sydney Road in Brunswick and Coburg found traders over-estimated the number of people arriving by car at 61%, compared to the actual value of 39%.

"Traders under-estimated walking at 14%, less than half of the actual value of 31%.

"This may be influenced in part by high driving rates of traders – about two in three drive so they assume their customers do the same.”

Perceptions of how people get to centres are reflected in the value people place on car parking.

"In Northcote half of traders (47%) were not prepared to lose any parking for improved amenities at the centre, whereas only 28% of shoppers felt the same.

"Surveys of over 17,000 people across mostly eastern Australia found walking, cycling and public transport options are more important in town centres than car accessibility and parking. Shoppers tend to value other factors like vegetation and cleanliness most highly of all.

"The evidence in this report shows that people want public spaces which are designed for people, with car accessibility and parking a lesser priority.

"Councils should not be afraid of street space reallocation in activity centres to improve the pedestrian environment, even if it faces opposition from traders.”

Other recommendations include a review of planning provisions relating to private vehicle access around activity centres, including arterial road design and car parking requirements for retail, commercial and residential uses, with a view to reducing car parking requirements and vehicle dominance to create more pedestrian-friendly environments that encourage people to walk.

The report also suggests state and federal governments should not create substantial new, free car parking at suburban train stations, except where rigorous cost benefit analysis comparing alternatives, including improved bus services and use of land for transit-oriented development, finds that it meets broad policy objectives.

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