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RETAIL BUS-INESS


Here’s a tip if you and a group of friends can’t decide whose turn it is to buy a round: compare your personal Uber ratings, and whoever has the lowest has to head to the bar. Not only does it neatly solve an age-old problem, but it also encourages more courteous behaviour towards – and better ratings from – your next Uber driver. The nicer you are, the less likely you are to foot the bill. Win-win.

 

The ubiquitous taxi app hit the headlines this week when TfL decided not to award it a licence; an appeal is almost certain, and the likeliest outcome seems to be further concessions from Uber and its continued operation in the capital. But, strange as it may seem to those of us based in major cities, Uber is not the dominant transport issue of the day. And neither is it trains.

 

Those of us who can bear to follow the election campaign might have been struck by the number of mentions of bus services by the party leaders. Dig a little deeper and the reasons become obvious: buses are far and away the leading method of public transport in the country, outnumbering train journeys 10:1. But services are being cut – not just rural routes, but increasingly major links – as the removal of subsidies makes them unviable.

 

Faced with a host of their own problems, retailer could be excused for shrugging their shoulders, but that would be foolish. For a widespread and well-served bus network is vital if town centres are going to be viable retail destinations in the years to come. Making it easy for people to get into a town – and home again – is a prerequisite for a successful trading environment, and buses are the best way of doing this.

 

New bus routes don’t need expensive new infrastructure (as train lines do), and don’t present the problems of congestion and pollution that cars do. We are used to thinking of buses as a technology of the past – they are 200 years old, after all – but for the majority of the UK they are very much of the present, and in any sensible world they should be the transport of the future too. Retailers should be joining local campaigners who are pushing back against the route cuts.

 

There’s a related issue here, and that’s pedestrianisation. If people can get to towns and cities by public transport, then they don’t need ugly car parks or polluted roads when they get there either. Our town centres could finally be free of the tyranny of the car, opened up for pedestrians and cyclists to use at their leisure. If bricks-and-mortar retail is to have a future, it needs to shape the whole environment – not just the stores – and create destinations where people want to visit and stay.

 

In August, The Economist included a piece about the pedestrianisation of cities across Europe, and the benefits these initiatives are bringing. What struck me was that the exemplar used was Antwerp, with praise heaped on its pedestrianised city centre with bars and cafes spilling out into the formerly car-clogged streets. Antwerp isn’t a Mediterranean town – it’s a northern European city, exposed to the elements of the North Sea, with the same climate and demographics as much of the UK. If a car-free future can be embraced there, there is no reason it cannot be a success here too.

 

Andrew Jefford

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