In a recent discussion on Twitter, Tom Bailey and I had a discussion about how to make shopping by bike more attractive, and in particular my suggestion that taxing parking spaces might help. Given the restrictions of trying to discuss complicated ideas in 140 characters at a time, Tom wrote a blog post (which I would urge you to read) to lay out his position more fully, and this is my reply. It started as a comment on his blog but got too big, so I moved it here instead.

My position is a bit more involved than just taxing car parking spaces at big retail parks, see here for further details. One of the issues for the High Street is that it can not compete with the free parking provided by the out of town shopping centres, so applying a tax to parking spaces would go some way to help redress this balance.

The introduction of pedestrian and cycle friendly access would also help, as would convenient secure cycle parking. There have been a number of international studies which have shown that the economic value of a parking space is far greater when used for parking bicycles than cars. As Tom says, retailers care about footfall, and you can get 10 bicycles into the space required to park one car. By taxing car parking spaces you can provide incentives for cycle parking in locations where they are most likely to benefit both the retailer and the cycling shopper. Retailers consistently overestimate the importance of car users and parking to their businesses. I well remember the rumpus when cars were removed from Princes Street to make way for wider pavements, all the retailers claimed that their businesses would suffer, but then a year later they all reported greatly increased takings.

Unlike Tom, I have used a bicycle to shop at various large shopping centres, when I have been unable to find what I wanted in the city (Edinburgh), i.e. going to Ikea at Straiton or B&Q at Fort Kinnaird. Neither of these places is easy or pleasant to access by bicycle, but could be made more accessible if there was a will to do so (it is worth noting that in a number of countries Ikea offers free cargo bike or bike trailer hire to help customers get their purchases home). Experience from a number of cities in mainland Europe shows that retailers even want to encourage cyclists, because they spend more! Think about it, cycling to the shops costs nothing, so you have more money in your pocket when you arrive. You could argue that the big supermarkets offer petrol stations to recover more money from people who have driven to their sites, but a quick look at the margins on such fuel sales will show that it is just a loss leader.

Tom says that he has never seen an attractive car park, well I can’t argue with that, but if you reduce the need to park cars, these “ugly, traffic congested hell holes” (Thanks Tom, I can’t think of a better description) could be re-landscaped into something far more attractive.

So now we come to the heart of the issue, how do we get the cultural shift which is needed to get people to leave the car at home and use other means of transport such as cycling, walking and public transport, to get to the shops in the first place? Well the first thing you need to do is to make it attractive to do so. Most people really don’t want to spend time in “ugly, traffic congested hell holes”, so why do we insist on making them use these? Conventional wisdom has it that, if we give people some training and they are confident, they can ride safely with the motorised traffic, and from this base cycling modal share can be increased. Once modal share has reached 5%, you may then need to put in separated infrastructure to grow the modal share further.

Sounds great, but I can’t find a single example of anywhere that it has actually happened this way! Places with high cycling modal share have gotten there by providing good quality cycle infrastructure, including separation from motorised traffic on the busiest routes. The other great fallacy is that this takes years to happen, odd then that Barcelona they saw a dramatic increase in modal share over the space of five years, after putting in good quality cycle infrastructure, so it can be done! The key thing, as Jan Gehl tells us, is to invite people to walk and bike in cities by developing quality streetscapes.

In the end you can see that Tom and I are in agreement in many ways, but I don’t see why good quality separated routes couldn’t lead straight to the doors of the retailers, and with cycle parking being higher density, parking for a greater number of shoppers could be provided right at the entrance to the units. After all, if people could get there without using the car, much of the space currently wasted on car parking could be greened to make them more pleasant to visit and increase retail spend.