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Progressive place leaders welcome extra options for travelling into town

Dublin, Republic of Ireland
Dublin was the highest ranked city for resident satisfaction as a good to place to walk, in a recent Sustrans’ study

Have we passed a tipping point where most place managers now welcome the prospect of increasing the opportunities for people to travel to town, other than by car?

With over two-thirds of UK local councils having declared a climate change emergency and cities recognised globally as being at the forefront of moves towards net zero, many place leaders are recognising this as another reason for rethinking how and why we ‘travel to town’.

Growing appetite for travel choices

Certainly, in my work with the People & Places Partnership, we find there is a greater appetite amongst place leaders to review the options for travelling to and around town and city centres.  The increased number of calls from local authorities and BIDs for help to review different aspects of the journey from ‘sofa to shop’, suggest that responding to climate change policies is part of the motivation.

Part of a joined-up place management

As author of the Local Government Association’s Revitalising Town Centres Toolkit, I recognise rethinking travel to town as part of a joined-up approach to re-imaging places.  Lively, attractive and accessible public spaces are key focal points that draw people in and influence how they intuitively move around town and city centres.  Mixes of businesses and services including groceries, hospitality, banks, public services, co-working spaces and visitor attractions, will influence how and when people seek to travel to town. 

Taking a pragmatic approach

At People & Places, we believe in a pragmatic approach that aims to give people more options for how they travel to town, as exemplified by our work with the British Parking Association to apply their Park Active approach with partners like Brighton & Hove City Council.  Our perspective is that it is important to take a customer-led approach to making the journey to town into a seamless experience for people who need to drive, whilst often reducing the impacts of town centre traffic.

City-wide investments in infrastructure

It is great to see cities investing in public transport and cycling infrastructure, whilst not forgetting the humble role of the pedestrian.  Data for the Dublin from Sustrans’ recently published Walking and Cycling Index, for example, suggests that alongside its effective tram system, the Irish capital has the highest proportion of residents amongst benchmarked places, who think their city is a good place to walk (45%).  Dublin has also experienced a large increase in older residents who walk at least 5 days a week; up to 74% in 2023 compared to 54% in 2021.

Encouraging active travel within towns

Towns serving large rural hinterlands need to remain conscious of some customers’ dependency on travel by car.  In our stakeholder surveys of such towns, we find around half of residents switch between walking and car as their main modes of travel to town.  This is where support for quickly increasing active travel opportunities can be effectively directed. This includes ensuring that residents of new developments find it more appealing to travel sustainably into town than drive via a bypass towards out-of-town retail parks.   There is so much more to be gained by boosting footfall from new residents in this way, than by relaxing planning rules to allow empty town centre shops to be lost to residential.

Enticements that need not ‘cost the earth’

According to Sustrans’ research, the enticements for many people to travel actively into town need not always “cost the earth”.  The most popular change to encourage residents to walk more, for example, is to create nicer places along streets to rest (78%), whilst the most popular purpose for walking is to reach a particular destination, e.g. work, shopping (51%). The joint most popular personal improvement to encourage cycling is access to secure cycle storage at or near home and access to a bike (53%).

Getting stakeholder engagement right

The pandemic was of course a period of huge experimentation and potential learning about how people can travel to and around town centres.  Lessons learnt from research commissioned by the LGA recognised that to reduce tensions within communities, there was a need to invest in thorough stakeholder engagement.  This included establishing principles first, then developing details; trialling proposed long-term changes first; transparently sharing supporting evidence and being responsive.  It has been great to see schemes where we have been working like the day-time pedestrianisation of Hitchin town centre, become permanent following in-depth, post-pandemic consultation.  

Talking carrots more than sticks

I believe that the language used in engagement and scheme development matters too. Labels like “Congestion Charge”, “Low Traffic Neighbourhood”, “Ultra Low Emissions Zone”, “Traffic Regulation Orders”, “road closures” become readily be perceived as ‘sticks’ that penalize the motorist, rather than as ‘carrots’ that lead to increased travel choices. In our experience, polarising public opinion will normally favour the status quo and prevent reasoned debate.  We also believe it is important to showcase carrots like improved active travel infrastructure before brandishing the stick of say restricting vehicle access.

In challenging times where increased living costings continue to deter spend, and town and city centres are needing to be re-imagined to retain footfall, it may feel instinctive for place managers to resist or at least not beckon further change.  Our experience though is that progressive place leaders welcome extra options for travelling into town.

Chris Wade in Copenhagen

Chris Wade FIPM is Director of the People & Places Partnership which describes its mission as “bringing facts and faces to town centres.”

He has served as a High Streets Task Force Expert Panel Member since 2020 and is also an Advisory Council member for ATCM.  Chris is the author the LGA’s Revitalising Town Centre Toolkit, which he updated in 2020.


About the author


Formed in 2006, the Institute of Place Management is the international professional body that supports people committed to developing, managing and making places better.

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