At first sight, today’s news about the number of vacant properties in town centres may seem to have little to do with transport or buses. In fact, the figures are very important indeed, because they tell us a great deal about the overall prosperity of our town and city centres – upon which the viability and success of our local transport networks depend.
For those who missed the story, it concerned the results of a survey undertaken by Local Data Company (LDC), and previewed at the British Property Federation (BPF) Retail Summit on 10 February.
LDC’s survey of over 700 town centres showed that overall shop vacancy has very nearly doubled in England and Wales since the end of 2008. All regions saw a jump in vacancy reflected in the 2009 mid-year figures, but these rates have moderated significantly in this survey.
The northern regions, whose centres dominate the vacancy data, show the highest vacancy rates, with the North East particularly badly hit at 14%. The South and East, including London, saw a 33% increase in vacancy rates in the second half of 2009, with average vacancy at just around 9%.
Amongst the places particularly badly hit are Wolverhampton, with 23.9% of its shops standing empty, closely followed by Bradford, Middlesbrough and Sheffield. In the medium sized centre category, Margate tops this depressing league table, with 27.2% of shops empty.
So why should this concern bus operators? And why should we take the figures as a point of concern about patronage and revenue trends?
Well, for a start, we know that 28.8% of all bus trips are for shopping purposes. Then there’s another 19.7% of trips undertaken for commuting, plus 10.6% on personal business and 1.5% on business*. The nature of our local transport networks, and of the pattern of land use development generally in recent years, means that overwhelmingly these trips will be to town and city centres. Thus, something approaching 60% of all bus trips will be dependent on the attractiveness, health and vibrancy of these areas.
The importance of town centres as trip generators for public transport operators was underlined a couple of years ago in work done for the Commission for Integrated Transport, which we highlight in our Bus Industry Monitor analysis of the bus market.
It will be seen that any movement away from traditional town centres has a disproportionate effect on the number of people who use public transport, especially the bus. Although not shown in the table, a there is a similar trend for other leisure activities.
||Park & Ride
||Walk & Cycle
||Taxi & Other
|Nearest Town / City Centre
|Other Town / City Centre
|Out of Town Retail
|Edge of Town Retail
|Local Convenience Store
The Department for Transport’s quarterly statistics for bus patronage for the summer quarter last year showed some worrying trends on bus patronage – particularly in the PTE areas. The LDC figures might start to explain why – and also suggest that we should not look for an upturn anytime soon.
More information on the report, including a downloadable copy, is available from the British Property Federation website.
For more on the CfIT report in 2006, see this release which contains links to the full document.
* - National Travel Survey 2008, Department for Transport.
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