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Is easy parking the key to more shoppers?

Last Friday (15th September) was Park(ing) Day. As the website explains,

“Park(ing) day is a global, public, participatory project where people across the world temporarily repurpose curbside parking spaces and convert them into public parks and social spaces to advocate for safer, greener, and more equitable streets for people.”

It’s interesting that most of the time when you ask shoppers and retailers how a shopping precinct could be improved, the knee jerk response is often simply ‘more parking’. And although at face value it sounds logical, in practice there are other considerations.

Think of some of the busiest traditional retail settings here in Australia and around the world. Oxford Street in London, or, here in Brisbane the same street in Bulimba. Neither makes for easy parking close by, but this has generally not stopped people from going shopping in either location. And the only price shoppers pay is a slightly longer walk to the shops or a (hopefully small) fee to park closer, or both!

This also applies to larger shopping malls. Next time you visit one, see how long it takes you to walk from where you parked your car to the (first) shop you’re visiting. A fair bit longer than the walk from your car to the shop/s at the suburban shopping precinct I’d guess!

So clearly proximity of a parking spot is not the sole consideration when shopping. In fact it’s probably quite low down the list.

Apart from choice/type of shops, there are other considerations too when doing any type of shopping except online…

  • Time element of having to drive around to find a space
  • Having to criss cross a busy street several times to go to different shops
  • Having to breathe in the fumes of the vehicles on the same busy street

In fact many well known shopping precincts are not on busy roads at all – they are either pedestrianised or are locations that existed before the car and have been closed to car traffic.

Larger cities have more pedestrian only areas where – if any forms of transport are allowed in, it’s only bicycles, trams and maybe buses. Think Amsterdam, Rome, Oxford and any number of cities in Europe. Even Brisbane has Queen Street Mall and some laneways.

Many suburbs around the world only sprung up thanks to widespread car ownership, so it’s logical that – as a part of the (sub)urban sprawl – suburban shopping precincts would be car centric.

But there’s plenty of evidence that this does not make for a pleasant shopping experience. Many high streets/main streets today have few green spaces, little public seating and insufficient public toilet facilities. This not only makes shopping uncomfortable, in hot climates it also increases the temperature due to the heat island effect. All the more reason to go to an air conditioned shopping centre in summer rather than your local high street/main street (see our previous article on air conditioning).

How can a suburb test out whether converting a street (or part of one) would be worthwhile?

It’s difficult, but not impossible. Every time any parking is taken away, there’s generally opposition. And the other downside is that when this happens there is an initial ‘hit’ to retail trade as people who are after convenience shopping choose other places to shop. There will also be a change to the retail mix (which occurs naturally in any retail environment anyway) after a pedestrianisation.

But in the longer term it makes a pedestrian shopping precinct a sort of mini tourist attraction plus it allows street based events and entertainment much easier, which draw people in.

One way of testing this out is to close streets off for events like markets and festivals. Of course you cannot compare a market or a festival to a permanently pedestrianised zone, but it gives you an idea of how the space could be used and the commercial benefits of a pedestrianised zone as well as the self evident environmental ones.

So if you agree with my conclusions, mark Park(ing) Day in your 2024 calendar and test it out!

Several years ago we conducted a survey of local residents in a suburb with a normal ‘main street’ style retail precinct, and asked whether people would like to see some of the central street pedestrianised. We also asked what new facilities people would like to see. One very popular addition was a swimming pool. When we combined those people who wanted a pool (in the street!) with those who wanted a pedestrian zone, that added up to more than half of all respondents! It takes more than a survey though…

More Information
A film about Danish architect Jan Gehl’s study of human behaviour in cities, called The Human Scale, is worth a watch. If you belong to a library that is a member of Beamafilm, you can watch it here.

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