Who is shopping on Leith Walk?

On The Scotsman, Grant Kavanagh, owner of a print shop on Leith Walk, pleas for space on the street to be given not to proper cycling infrastructure but to more car parking. These are Kavanagh’s arguments:

Parking on Leith Walk is a real problem for businesses at the moment and it’s really a case of motorists bringing a lot more business than cyclists.

Everyone who lives and works on Leith Walk wants it restored so that we can encourage people back into the area. If people cannot park then they will not come down to Leith Walk and that will not help us at all.

There is a vast difference between the number of vehicles that pass down Leith Walk in comparison with the number of bikes, so I don’t understand the need for dedicated lanes for minority road users.

I don’t think I need to address that last claim — about cycling infrastructure being for the minority who are Cyclists — so soon after writing about it at length. It’s the earlier ones that merit a further look.

Kavanagh clearly believes that the businesses on Leith Walk are, or are capable of, attracting customers from all over Edinburgh, who drive in and park up to shop. His belief is quite typical of small retail business owners. We have developed a national myth about the importance of motoring and car parking to urban retail. I’ve written before about how this myth was explored a few years ago on Gloucester Road in Bristol — a road which shares important characteristics with Leith Walk, namely, being an arterial ‘A’ road, running through a densely populated residential neighbourhood, and being lined with small independent businesses and a few convenience stores.

The shopkeepers of Gloucester road were asked to estimate what proportion of their customers came by car. The average answer was more than two fifths. But actually only just over a fifth drove to the shops. They greatly underestimated how many people walked, cycled, or took the bus. Their estimates of how far their customers were travelling was also way out, with business owners believing that they are able to attract customers from miles around — just as Kavanagh does — when in fact most lived a short walk away. And they found little to support the idea that motorists were good customers, with drivers likely to rush in and rush out while pedestrians hang around and visit several different establishments.

Mr Kavanagh’s business is relatively specialist. His is not the only print shop in Edinburgh, but perhaps it is the best quality or best service or best value or for whatever reason he really is able to attract customers from all over the city and beyond. But, and I hope the business owners of Leith Walk will not take this personally, very few of the shops on the street are. I don’t believe that anybody is going miles out of their way to go to a Co-op, a post office, a pharmacy, a bakery, a kebab shop, Tesco Express or their barber, accountant, or solicitor. It should not be taken as a slur on the reputation of the perfectly nice delis and coffee shops to state that almost all of their customers come from no further away than the office buildings a couple of minutes up the road and the tenement blocks around the corner, for this is the nature of delis and coffee shops everywhere.

Leith Walk succeeds as a local high street because its shops and services are mostly local shops and services — the sort of essentials that everybody needs but nobody wants to have to go out of their way to obtain. Which is why I am fairly confident that if you surveyed the people who shop there, you’d find that most live locally and walk, many combine walking with the bus, more than Mr Kavanagh would expect cycle, and a lot fewer than he would believe drive (or ever would drive, however much car parking was provided). My guess is that of those who do drive, a very large proportion are making a journey of just a couple of kilometres — for we know that a large proportion of urban car trips cover very short distances — and that Kavanagh would again be surprised at how many would consider leaving the car behind — indeed, would be relieved to be able to do so — if they were to be given a viable alternative like safe and comfortable cycle tracks. And that would mean fewer local folk clogging up the parking spaces as they stop to spend 89p on milk, and more spaces for those who are driving in from miles around to spend big at the print shop.

But we don’t have to argue over our guesses. Why not test it? The methods of the Bristol study were simple enough, and it might take one person a weekend to replicate, or a small group could do it in an afternoon.

19 thoughts on “Who is shopping on Leith Walk?”

  1. Think the other point often missed by people who use the car-necessary-for-business argument, is how much more pleasant shopping becomes when the number of cars in the shopping area is reduced. Instead of a filthy grind it becomes something that can become more of a pleasurable wander.

  2. I’m sure that shopkeepers all over have the same misconceptions. Certainly it looks like those in my home town in Surrey think so, judging by the intemperate reaction (see http://www.haslemereparking.com) to all suggestions by the county council to control (or charge for) on-street parking in the town, primarily to ease the difficulties faced by many town-centre residents who frequently find it impossible to park anywhere near their own homes due to shoppers or commuters who obviously prefer to park for free on-street rather than pay to use the ample –paid-for – off-street parking available nearby. Now, you might not be entirely sympathetic to those who wish to park close to their homes without having paid for a larger house with garden where they could easily do so by taking their car off the street, but surely their case is more deserving than that of a relatively affluent individual who can’t be a*sed to walk to the shops or station, but still doesn’t believe that he should have to pay for parking?

    There is one quite reasonable charge which could be laid against the borough council which owns the off-street car parks, which is that in the 21st Century there must surely be a more convenient way of paying for your parking than having to have a sack of loose change handy to feed the machine, but I simply don’t believe that less than a pound for an hour of parking is seriously going to drive away custom from shoppers who can afford a new Volvo or BMW every 3-4 years and can afford to live in one of the highest priced housing areas outside central London, and whose bill in the local Waitrose (which doesn’t have its own car park, but rebates the bill for cost of parking) can get to three figures before you have the chance to blink.

    The county council has, to be fair, made a complete horlicks of the process of introducing parking controls. I don’t imagine it has done any research on what effect the controls would have on shopping footfall, or what proportion of trade comes from arrivals by car, bike or shank’s pony. I don’t know whether Sustrans or anyone else could suggest how that might be done.

  3. The statements I made in the newspaper article were based on my PERSONAL experience and knowledge of my customer base, and the opions of some other colleagues who have a business in the Leith area.

    However, in the interest of fairness, I will be conducting a survey in my shop from today (15th August 2012) until the end of September, and I will publish the results of that survey here.

    The survey will ask the follwing questions :
    1. How did you travel to the area today: Walk, Cycle, Bus, Car
    2. Do you think there is enough parking space available on Leith Walk.
    3. Do you think there is a need for a Dedicated Cycle Lane on Leith Walk.

  4. Grant – good of you to state your case – but careful how you phrase your survey, as it seems biased in its phraseology at the moment. People will naturally say that there isn’t ‘enough’ parking space, because how much is enough? Contrast this to your third question, phrased more negatively, which asks if there’s a ‘need’ for a dedicated cycle lane. If you swapped the terminology around (eg Do you think we need even more space for cars on Leith Walk/ ‘do you think there is enough provision for cycling on Leith Walk’), I suspect responses would differ.

    And remember, you’re asking this survey at a time when cyclists are being actively discouraged from using the street, and cars subsidised through on-street parking, to do so. The argument is that if you actually make room for cyclists, you’ll see better business. While there are lots of studies that show this effect in other cities, it’s impossible to gauge BEFORE you actually take the plunge and promote cycling.

    I was on Leith Walk this morning – cycling naturally – and spending the princely sum of £23.50. But I was struck by the number of cars parked either side of the road. Are these really shoppers? Do these cars actually shift during the day?

  5. Grant. Might also be useful for your survey to ask where drivers have driven from? If the results show that the majority of your customers have driven a fair distance then that might add weight to your support of parking.

  6. A good piece.

    A survey done earler thsi year for Ealing Council in Southall tends to back up what this piece suggests: the importance of shopping by car is overestimated. There is loads more information on this, I suggest try Campaign for Better Transport or others to get it.

    Th experience throughout northern Europe in the 70s and 80s was that there was initially an expresed need voiced by business for more car parking and roads, but they found out that their sales and business generally improved when the sustainable modes were supported and there were fewer cars – which makes a city more pleasant anyway, and nicer to shop in. if that’s your priority.

    Re- Mr. Kavanagh’s survey: people may often think that there should be more car parking “for other people” as they have swallowed the diea that there should be lots of car parking. the point is: How did they come themselves? Also,as the piece suggests, a specialist print shop could be the exception which proves the rule.

  7. Might I also suggest that you edit the content of your article to be a bit more respectful to MR Kavanagh. At various points you refer to him without his title.

    Manners cost nothing!

  8. I have alleady received a number of responses to my ‘survey’. One comment that had accompanied a number of the responses was that a dedicated cycle lane would be appropriate if it meant that the cyclists would use it, rather than the pavement, and if it then encouraged cyclists to use the road area in accorance with the rules of the road. (Although I agree wholehearted with these statements, I must state that they are NOT mine and have been genuinly made by my customers).

  9. Grant – I think you are preaching to the converted here to some extent. If dedicated cycle lanes were put in, to proper Dutch standards, which actually went somewhere (rather than being discontinuous and poorly designed) then people would see no reason to ride on the pavements. They might even bring you more customers!

  10. Don’t use what I presumed was a well-intentioned survey to report snide and generalised jibes at cyclists. What relevance do these comments have anyway – of course a dedicated cycle lane would mean that cyclists would use it rather than the pavement. I doubt the tiny minority who cycle on the pavements are doing it out of sheer bloody mindedness.

    1. You don’t have to read too many newspaper ‘letters to the editor’ to find comments along the lines of “we provide all these cycle lanes but the cyclists still insist on riding on the pavement!”. I think many non-cyclists DO think sheer bloody mindedness is involved, notwithstanding the fact that much of the infrastructure we currently have is incompetently designed and dangerous.

      Unfortunately, what might be obvious to existing cyclists like us, is not necessarily obvious to those who never cycle.

  11. Mr Kavanagh, did any pedestrians or cyclists come in your shop and complain about the appalling standards of driving they’ve witnessed on Leith Walk?

    Perhaps they would have been entitled to moan about the 2/3 of drivers who admit to speeding every time they get in their car; the one in ten UK drivers that have no insurance or licence; or the thousands of people in Edinburgh who’ve been killed and seriously injured by motor vehicles in recent years while walking or cycling.

    I guess when you have such a massive sense of entitlement as you do, these tiresome little facts fall by the wayside.

  12. The point about small retailers overestimating the amount of people who shop by car is a very good one.

    However, it is probably useful to sympathise (or at least empathise….) with small retailers on Leith Walk. Most are unlikely to know very much about cycling/urban design. In addition, they have very much been let down by the Council’s tram fiasco and (perhaps unsurprisingly), are unlikely to have much faith in the Council’s ability to do anything innovative properly. So falling back on the status quo (however silly that might seem if you cycle) is probably quite appealing to them.

    That said, it is difficult to understand the unspoken assumption that a dedicated cycle lane has to lead to a massive reduction in parking. There are plenty of similar streets in other countries which manage to combine dedicated cycles paths with parking, public transport and shopping. See for example the Overtoom in Amsterdam where there is also a Print Shop – AKDR Printing (https://maps.google.co.uk/maps?hl=en-GB&gbv=2&ie=UTF-8&q=Overtoom+147+II+AKDR&fb=1&gl=uk&hq=Overtoom+147+II+AKDR&cid=0,0,7107286483400765228&ei=U-UsUJjNMsTF0QXPqYHIDA&ved=0CCgQ_BIwAw). If one compares this with a Streeview image of Mr Kavanagh’s shop “Arkay Imaging” (https://maps.google.co.uk/maps?hl=en-GB&gbv=2&ie=UTF-8&q=ARKAY+IMAGING++LEITH+WALK&fb=1&gl=uk&hq=ARKAY+IMAGING++LEITH+WALK&cid=0,0,16349703479425268231&ei=fN4sUMLiGcOy0QW4h4HIDA&ved=0CB8Q_BIwAQ) then there seems to be plenty of room on Leith Walk. The main difference though is the pavement, which is much wider on much of Leith Walk than it would be in the Netherlands. Looking into reducing pavement sizes (and making the maxiumum use of the space available) would be one way to allow for parking and a cycle lane on Leith Walk. So it isn’t really rocket science. All the design is already out there.

  13. Firstly, apologies for the numerous typos. It comes from tiredness and being typing dysexlic (joke).

    There is one important point still to be made about the problems of small retailers. One of the main difficulties – if not the main difficulty – they face is competition from big supermarkets and hypermarkets. These outlets are based very much on easy access for car users. If motoring was not made so cheap and easy, driver crime going unpunished etc., then teh small retailer on the high street would get more custom.

  14. I cycled up Leith Walk tonight and must admit that there is evidence that isn’t enough room to park cars – simply because the bus and cycle lane, from Gordon Street to Iona Street, was impossible to cycle on as there were 12 cars double-parked on it! Really was bordering on the scary battling with buses and cars on a badly-surfaced single lane.

    Anguish, you’re right about the size of the pavement. It’s huge. The blog is also right about the quality of the shops (Arkay Imaging excluded I’m sure). Nobody, surely, is coming great distances to shop there.

    But if you make this street good – and that includes great cycling provision – it surely would be a huge boost to the attractiveness of the street.

  15. Grant Kavanagh says above, “I will be conducting a survey in my shop from today (15th August 2012) until the end of September, and I will publish the results of that survey here.” I can’t see the results here. Did he publish them elsewhere?

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