I wrote recently about a certain newspaper’s campaign to save the Shawland’s high street (Pollockshaws/Kilmarnock Road) from its slow decline [citation needed…] by opposing an increase in parking charges. My points were based around specifics to Shawlands, but Suicyclist on the CityCyclingGlasgow forum also pointed out this article on the CounterCyclic blog, which gives a nice broad argument why cheap parking does not a thriving high street make.
As it’s easy to criticise the suggestions of others, instead of just pointing out that lowering parking is a daft method for improving a shopping area, I thought I’d have a bash at actually working out what the problems were. You know, with evidence and measured assessment, rather than charging off in a dubious direction with confident shouts and bold petitions based on a bit of gut feel and finger-in-the-air-ness.
The first step in any good analysis is declaring early any shortfalls in your knowledge (says Rob Williams, Master of Mathematics and two-time winner of the Mount Florida all-comers tiddley-winks championship). In this case, I know nothing about how to design a successful shopping street. Shameful, isn’t it? However, rather than pushing on regardless, I’ve taken the liberty of reading through the current Scottish documentation for the design of successful streets; the somewhat obviously-named Designing Streets.
Before I really get started, I should mention that the planning officer for Shawlands (a certain David Dunlop) got in touch after the first article and asked to meet up for a chat about cycling in Shawlands as part of the local Action Plan to improve the area. We’re in the process of sorting out a date, but to keep this article open-minding I haven’t yet read through the proposals of the regeneration project. As it happens, this article is about pedestrians rather than cyclists anyway.
Quick overview then of what this document is (again, big PDF alert). As well as being the best aid to a good night’s sleep since Horlicks, Designing Streets covers in pretty fine detail the principles that Scottish local authorities should consider when, er, designing a street. ‘Streets’ are distinct from ‘roads’ – the former is basically anything within a city, town or village, whilst the latter covers your motorways, A-roads, country lanes and anything that exists solely to shift traffic around. Certainly anything within Glasgow that isn’t a motorway or a flyover A-road should be following this document – the doc says ‘all thoroughfares within urban settings and rural boundaries should normally be treated as streets’.
It only came into force in 2010, so there’s clearly a lot of catching up to be done. No excuses though for anything laid up or re-designed since then. The document is also a little light on the kind of commercial areas we’re talking about here – the examples are mainly residential. However, given the upper three floors in every four-storey building in Shawlands are flats, we should still be able to apply the same guidelines.
There are five policy statements within Designing Streets, of which I shall highlight the first right now: street design must consider place before movement. Come the revolution, this shall be our cry…
Six qualities of successful places
Another of the policies is that successful places must be:
- Safe and pleasant
- Easy to move around
- Resource efficient
In addition; ‘street user hierarchy should consider pedestrians first and private motor vehicles last‘ and ‘street design should be inclusive, providing for all people regardless of age or ability’. Public transport and cyclists drop into the middle. The document is quite clear – if you base your decisions for successful neighbourhoods around the private motor vehicle, you’ll fail.
Armed with these guidelines (and I’ll drag in additional details as we go), let’s have a gander at Shawlands high street and see if we can spot some problems.
Through all of this we’re trying to find issues that are reducing the number of pedestrians. If you’re not on foot, you’re not going to walk into a shop and spend your hard-earned pennies. Remember, if it get’s too unpleasant I’ll just nip ten minutes into town and use the completely pedestrianised Buchanan Street (you know, the best place in UK for shopping outside of London…).
I talk more about the ‘edge’ that Shawlands needs at the end, so if you’re not fussed about the detail then skip ahead.
Let’s start with the easy one; the 4-way (6-way, if we count the extra junctions immediately off the side roads) junction slap in the middle of the high street.
Page 12 of Designing Streets; ‘junctions should be designed with the considerations of the needs of pedestrians first‘ and, on the next page, ‘street layouts should be configured to allow walkable access to local amenities for all street users’. A bit later on we’re told about trying to provide pedestrian routes as close as possible to the ‘desire lines’, ie the ideal route that someone would take given the choice. Compare the red route above with the desire line which would effectively run straight down the centre…
On page 36 we’re told that multi-armed junctions of this type are one of the most hostile options for pedestrians. Definitely prioritising the movement of vehicles over our shoppers.
Turning to ‘pleasantness’ (remember the policy requirements from above?), let’s see how it looks from ground level.
Well blow me if it’s not hideous. Endless expanses of tarmac, long sightlines encouraging high vehicle speeds, and railings keeping our shoppers caged tight against the walls (page 52, ‘guard railing should not be provided unless a clear need for it has been identified’. Improving traffic flow is specifically mentioned as not being a clear need).
In fact, is impressive quite how unpleasant it is, given the attractive Shawland’s Kirk (church…) on the right and the distinctive, slender Granary pub directly opposite. What could be the focal point of the entire area is instead completely lost beneath tyres and exhaust.
By the way, savour the sight of that tree, as it’s the last green thing we’re going to see. I’ll strike out the sections of Designing Streets that refer to planting, ecological stuff, and other ‘my, isn’t this nice’ elements.
Tarmac. So much tarmac
Having persevered and continued southbound, here’s a lovely shot of how easy it is to cross the road.
Is that an environment you’d want to take a child anywhere near? Or for that matter spend any time in at all?
The longer people can be encouraged to stay in an area, the more cash you’ll prise out of them. Shawlands excels in persuading people to hurry up and leave.
Talking of which:
Where do I linger?
I’m a stereotypical male in that I find shopping more tiring than wrestling bears. After a solid twenty minutes of being indecisive you either need to give me somewhere to take a breather, or I’m going to give up and leave. Designing Streets says ‘Seating is necessary to provide rest points for pedestrians, particularly older people or people with mobility or visual impairments, and extra seating should be considered where people congregate, such as squares [and] local shops’.
Unless you’re in Shawlands! Here we only want you if you’re fit enough to stay on your feet. Those who need breaks are weak, and should leave. Right now. There are no free resting places (ie benches) anywhere on the high street.
Partly this is because we’ve decided that five lanes of traffic is more important than appropriately wide pavements, but even where there is space we haven’t bothered. Exhibit A:
I could fit a small but functional Roman amphitheatre in that space. Probably not lions, but I could certainly stretch to large cats. Why is there not a bench? Or for that matter, some cycle parking?
Just to show I’m not picking isolated examples:
This is at the other end, looking down the dead-end Abbot Street onto the high street. As well as the poor use of space, why on earth have we still got these railings on the left and at the end? Two bike racks make a lonely appearance (hidden behind the last bollard on the right.
The lack of seating and ‘lingering space’ makes it quite clear – spend what you must, then go.
I’ll finish on a subtle one. Firstly, let’s all recite highway code rule 170; ‘watch out for pedestrians crossing a road into which you are turning. If they have started to cross they have priority, so give way’. We want our junctions with minor roads to encourage this rule, making it clear that cars should crawl round these junctions and be prepared to stop, and that pedestrians have priority. Pedestrian routing should be as direct as possible – time spent waiting to cross is time not spent passing money over to local shopkeepers.
Designing Streets gives the following handy diagrams (page 16):
Now let’s pick a junction from Shawlands.
A few pickups:
- Credit where it’s due; the raised table across the junction is good practice, both slowing cars and making the crossing more accessible to those who have trouble with uneven surfaces. It goes downhill from here though.
- We’ve got a soft, sweeping corner rather than the required sharp edge, enabling vehicles to take the junction at higher speeds and making it harder for pedestrians to see what’s coming from behind. The double-yellow lines also emphasise the sweep in my mind and aren’t needed (Highway Code rule 243; ‘DO NOT stop or park opposite or within 10 metres of a junction, except in an authorised parking space’).
- The dreaded railings make a return, enabling traffic to maintain a higher speed right up to the junction safe in the knowledge that they can’t be obstructed.
The car is king. Shoppers should wait for a gap to hurry across, probably giving a thankful wave as they go. Who does this junction feel built for?
Closing thoughts – the ‘edge’
Every shopping area needs an edge; something that makes it stand out from the competition and draws customers in to spend money. In rural areas the edge might just be that there’s nothing else nearby, but Shawlands clearly can’t use that; you’re competing with some of the best shopping in Europe 15 minutes away (Buchanan St), and a number of significant shopping centres 20 minutes drive away (Silverburn, Braehead, etc). In the main, businesses and residents rely on town planners and local councils to provide this edge; I could create the cutest tea shop you’ve ever seen, but if you only give me a motorway hard shoulder to work with I’ll struggle.
Using a comprehensive Southside Central residents survey from 2011 (not quite the right spot, but damn close and the best data I could find), we know that the most significant problem perceived by local people is road safety, and specifically cars driving too fast. Fast traffic = hostile.
We also know that half of Glasgow households don’t own a car (Glasgow local development plan 2011). Of those that do, one would imagine that the majority of these vehicles are used to get to work during the day, so it’s unlikely that most people shopping during the day are getting around by private motor vehicle. Some data collection on this would be handy, but it seems a logical deduction. Don’t rely on cars to bring your daily customers.
Finally, you need to be on foot to spend money in local businesses. The longer you spend walking around, the more you’ll spend.
Based on all of this, Shawlands has decided that it’s shopping edge, the key reason to visit, should be an area that maximises vehicle speeds, maximises on-street space given over to vehicles (despite a number of decent-sized conventional car parks), and is spectacularly hostile to pedestrians. Superb…
I asked Susan Aitken (one of my local councillors) why she’d signed the petition calling for cheaper car parking on Shawlands high street. The answer was that the area ‘needs more than just locals visiting to survive as a town centre’.
It needs to give them a reason to come.
Sadly, all we can give at the moment are reasons to go elsewhere.
Treat the parking charge debate going on at the moment as the political vote grabber and newspaper publicity bait that it is. If you want to start curing a dying Shawlands, you need to abandon the current addiction to the private car and start creating an environment that actually encourages shoppers.
Right, I’m off to read these proposals for a new Shawlands. Let’s hope they do something about it, eh?