Pedestrianised towns say: we want cars

London's Soho has introduced new anti-motorist measures. But the tide is starting to turn.

Emma Cook
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:54

IT WAS a planner's dream. Ban the traffic, pave over the roads and, hey presto, an ancient cathedral town is reborn as a modern European city. But that dream has become a nightmare for many Norwich residents.

Women like student Amanda Teale, 24, who is terrified of walking in the traffic-free city centre at night. ''If you're walking through, there's no way out, only shuttered shops on each side." She said the atmosphere at night was "dead". "I never go to any of the pubs because I don't want to park outside the centre and then walk in. I go to out-of-town bars instead."

There are now plans to build an out-of-town shopping site because so few retailers can afford to rent in the central pedestrianised areas. "The rates and rents are so high they have had some problems. There are no specialist shops in the centre, only chains," said a spokesman for the city's Enterprise Partnership.

Across Britain planners and councillors are falling over themselves in the rush to pedestrianise, despite mounting evidence that at best the advantages equal the disadvantages. Above all, pedestrianisation is killing off the small retailer.

Latest to jump on the bandwagon is Westminster Council, in the heart of London, which over the past weeks has brought chaos to the heart of Soho with its one-year pilot scheme to close part of Old Compton Street and Frith Street for most of the day and evening. The council is also considering a pounds 500,000 traffic-free piazza outside Piccadilly's Trocadero centre and has approved a plan to close off a number of smaller roads around Regent St.

In theory, pedestrianised shopping areas should provide the ideal solution to urban congestion: attractive fume-free zones in every urban centre. Instead, they're rapidly creating as many problems as they solve. Their paved streets and squares may promise an oasis of pedestrian tranquillity but, like so many across Britain, they house only major retailers such as Dixons, Burger King and Boots.

Councils have been trying to empty cars from city centres since the early 1970s, emulating schemes that were pioneered by the Europeans, especially in Copenhagen, Vienna, Stockholm and Germany.

Now there are more than 300 pedestrian shopping areas in Britain and the numbers are still rising. According to a survey by Social and Community Planning Research, 70 per cent of the public is "in favour" of more pedestrianisation.

Still, though, planners have failed to address the sometimes disastrous effects of these schemes. "I try never go near it at night - it's a nasty atmosphere," said one Ipswich resident, 46-year-old Joan Mitchell. "It's almost always empty after about 7pm, except for groups of young people."

Like McDonald's Quarter Pounders, pedestrian schemes have come to define the homogenised consumer experience that dominates at least part of so many British towns and cities. From the red paving to the tubs of plants and the gold and black bollards, this is shopping at its safest but also at its most predictable.

The problem is that only major retailers can afford to rent in pedestrianised areas. According to a report by Erdman Lewis property consultants, property rents in pedestrianised areas are almost 50 per cent higher than in other sites.

Nick Ware, head of central London retail at property consultants Jones Lang LaSalle, agrees. "Over time you see a substantial rise in tourists. Prices of rents go up and it's only the multiple retailers with financial standing that can pay the rent."

In Soho yesterday the benefits to pedestrians were obvious. The screech of traffic and the smell of fumes have been replaced with something resembling peace. Shoppers ambled in the middle of the road and the cappuccino crowd spilled out on to the pavements.

But not everyone is happy. Pedestrianisation has attracted even more tourists which in turn has proved a magnet for vagrants and beggars, not to mention thieves.

Architectural critic Jonathan Meades is distinctly unimpressed: "This is what happens to places which are stripped of traffic. They become magnets for low-level squalor."

Outside Bar Italia in Soho's Frith Street, two accordionists played away in the middle of the road while customers looked on indifferently. One busker headed purposefully towards the tables, cap in hand. "I think I preferred the sound of screeching brakes," joked a customer as the musicians broke into a particularly high-pitched folk song.

And some tradesmen worry that banning cars will deter regular customers. Robert Scalzo, manager of Patisserie Valerie in Old Compton Street, is unhappy. "Maybe the scheme has gone a little too far in restricting traffic through Soho," he said.

Councils and architects are only just realising that it is the complex layers of activity and varied transport that make cities so vibrant and dynamic. Which is why, stripped of one or more of these elements, paved shopping schemes can feel so soulless and anodyne.

Alan Tallentire, chairman of the Association of Town Centre Management, explained: "Some schemes can be a useful tool for revitalising a town centre but in conjunction with an overall strategy. In particular, access for disabled shoppers and car parking nearby."

Many planners make the mistake of investing in paved shopping areas without investing in local transport links. Consequently, come 6pm, these pretty paved squares and streets are as lively as a morgue, and they're the last place women want to walk through alone at night.

"In some areas once the shops close, nothing happens," said Mr Tallentire. "Bars and cafes won't open there because there's no parking. Then there's the problem with access. Often delivery vans can only serve shops from the front - which can be more confusing and dangerous for pedestrians than expected traffic."

A compromise, though, with a mix of roads that are closed to traffic for certain times in the day can work well. A mix of different retail outlets is also essential. "It's important that there are different activities after 6pm - you need art galleries alongside bars, restaurants and shops. You need a reason for people to be on the streets," said Ben Plowden, director of the Pedestrians' Association.

"In the larger centres, retailers do experience a higher turnover," said Brian Raggett, president of the Royal Town Planning Institute. "And the schemes are always welcomed by investors." And the Government, too.

The central thrust of Lord Rogers' Urban Task Force report was to squeeze cars out of cities while Sir Norman Foster would like to rid traffic from Trafalgar to Parliament Square. This might be ideal in theory but in practice it could look like less like London and more like every other pedestrianised area across Britain.

Ivan Massow, chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, is scathing about such plans. "Pedestrianisation schemes have turned Carnaby Street into a sad parade of Dunkin' Donuts and Covent Garden into a permanent stage for strangled attempts at 'La Bamba'," he said.

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