The answer of some in Government, particularly certain ministers (naming no names), is that if only we could get lots of cars into town centres, and allow them to park wherever they want for free then our High Streets will be saved. This appears to go against established research which shows those who travel by non-car modes spend more each week than car drivers.
A recent visit back to my hometown of Barnstaple in North Devon, and looking at how it manages its town centre, got me thinking about this. Is it possible to maintain car access to town centres, and make them people-friendly places as well? They aren’t mutually exclusive surely? Perhaps a small town in North Devon can teach us something.
Just a quick bit of context, Barnstaple is a small market town in North Devon with a tightly constrained retail core. The main retail function of the town takes place on the High Street, Boutport Street, and in many of the linking streets.
What Barnstaple town centre does well is maintain access by car to the town centre. But this is not how you would consider it. Take a map of the car parks of the town centre.
The majority of spaces serving the town centre are located on its periphery. For the only truly town centre car parks are at the Cattle Market and at Green Lanes (not shown on the map), access for those who choose to drive is very direct. For instance, why would you choose to drive along Boutport Street when access is straight and direct along Vicarage Street?
This is complemented by walking improvements along alleyways and mews leading from these car parks to the retail core.
The town centre has also benefitted from highway improvements that make it unattractive to drive through the retail core. Alexandra Road and the new Western Bypass make cross-town trips by car attractive along these routes, with the historic through routes of Boutport Street, The Strand, and the High Street long since relegated to a secondary role for movement.
But this relegation as a movement role has allowed nearly all streets in the town centre to improve their roles as places for people to meet, play, and shop. Simply, to act as the heart of the town. In Barnstaple, each town centre street plays a clear role. Let us start with the High Street.
The High Street’s role is the main retail and social heart of the town. But what is interesting here is that this is achieved not by major engineering works, but more through space management. For instance, the entry of vehicles between 10am and 4pm each day is banned along most of its length, enforced by a few simple things…
Note I say entry, for it is still possible for vehicles to exit after this time at the northern end and at Butchers Row. But the impact of this simple management measure is significant. Pedestrians feel confident in taking the space on the carriageway. So much so that all vehicles pass along the High Street with caution. As much as I hate using this term, drivers are almost considered to be guests within the space, as though it is being used with permission.
A good example is the only place on the High Street where vehicle access is permitted at all times, between Cross Street and Butchers Row. This section benefits from the street layout and the measures delivered elsewhere on the High Street to the point where nothing needed to be done at all. Here there is a tight junction geometry, sightlines are reduced by buildings (a common feature in the narrow streets of the town centre), and there is heavy pedestrian flow. Encouraged by measures elsewhere on the High Street, pedestrians use the carriageway space with confidence. Drivers mostly wait for pedestrians to cede priority, or follow behind them. There is the very occasional blast of the horn, admittedly.
If you underestimate the impact of a simple management measure like bollards, it even works on streets with low pedestrian flows such as in Joy Street. Pedestrians using the carriageway with confidence.
The big benefit of management measures such as this is a reduced up-front capital cost on major highway engineering measures. In Barnstaple High Street, the main highway works are total pedestrianisation outside the Pannier Market…
…some carriageway narrowing with associated seating and heritage features…
…and a single gateway. Ok, it hardly cost pennies, but it is far from a significant re-engineering of the highway.
The balance struck for the High Street means that the movement function of other streets is much more pronounced. Take, for example, Boutport Street. Walking down Boutport Street still gives the sensation of a more vehicle dominated environment reflecting its function for movement of all kinds – notably deliveries and buses.
Though even here there is a sense of place. For me, the frontage is perhaps more functional, with retail mixed with services such as the Post Office, and entertainment such as the Theatre. But there is still significant pedestrian usage of the street, and the environment is far from hostile.
Contrast the situation in Boutport Street with Butchers Row – significantly dominated by delivery traffic for both the Butchers and the nearby market. The function here is access – not only to the Pannier Market on market days, but also as part of the only cross town centre link open to traffic at all times.
Assuming you subscribe to the school of thought that the location of major retail chains is a proxy for the quality of the shopping environment, and the number of vacant units is a proxy for overall town centre health, then Barnstaple scores well. Major retail chains are focussed on the High Street where the pedestrian environment is the best. Whilst one cannot guess the profitability of individual businesses, in my round of the town centre I counted the number of vacant units on one hand. Even in Butchers Row, a vehicle dominated space, there were no free shop units.
The important point to learn from Barnstaple and other towns like it is that successful town centres are not built upon dictats around parking, nor expensive design measures such as shared space. They are built upon balancing the need for people-friendly town centres, delivering highway solutions reflecting the context of the town centre, and maintaining access to them that does not compromise that need. The future of our town centres certainly does not rest with flinging more cars into them.