More bad news from the high street – but where next?

Today’s press release from the British Retail Consortium showed a 6% year on year fall in footfall for March. It is not just the lousy weather we had in March, although it was so wet that even duck footfall fell, this is part of a longer term reduction in people accessing town centres (around 1.4% per year). As the Figure below shows using data from the National Travel Survey, the frequency of shopping trips and overall distance travelled to shops has declined for two decades.


The Decline in Shopping Trips and Distances

The normalisation of on-line shopping is obviously one factor here. On-line shopping is growing at around 10-12% per year and now represents almost 17% of total UK retail sales. The rise in on-line has coincided with a 30% decrease in physical shopping trips over the past decade and a 16% decline in distance travelled. In recent work undertaken as part of the DEMAND Centre, we found that many goods have become predominantly on-line purchases or are heading that way as shown below.


Purchasing Patterns for Different Goods


Importantly, the decline in shopping trips is just one of many categories of trips which have been declining over the past twenty years (pre-dating mass internet shopping). We have been so fascinated in the transport sector in explaining travel growth as the economy has grown that we have overlooked the fact that when the underlying conditions in society shift then travel might reduce. On 3rd May the Commission on Travel Demand will be launching its report “All Change? The Future of travel demand and the implications for policy and practice”. It will explore further why these trends have happened and how we might understand them so that we can look forward and plan for travel futures differently (or indeed plan for different travel futures).

The report will debate policy futures. The question which high streets face is why are people going to go there? Increasingly it has to be because they are nice places to be and they are places where a mix of activities can be undertaken in a clean and vibrant environment. So, transport planners, if we need to create great places then how do we value place? It seems that some of the logics which brought us to where we are today might need to be rethought very quickly if we are going to put form over function and ensure a good balance of activities remains in out cities. That may require upsetting some applecarts which have been cemented in place. The Commission report we hope will spark that debate. If you want to be part of it then please sign up to the event now!

Greg Marsden is the Chair of the Commission on Travel Demand


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