Can bike paths save the high street?

High streets in Britain are in decline. People say this is due to online shopping and this is undoubtedly part of the cause. It’s so easy to buy goods on the internet and have them delivered to your home that there’s no need to go out to the shops. You can even get your groceries delivered. Amazon is also very quick with, in some place, same day delivery.

However shopping malls are still doing well despite the growth of online shopping. We have two shopping malls in Aberdeen – Union Square and The Bon Accord Centre – and they’re always packed with people. My theory is that people go to the shopping malls for the car parking. There isn’t anywhere to park on the high street but shopping malls have multi-storey carparks.

Shopping malls are awful, soulless places with fluorescent lights, elevator music, and a general synthetic atmosphere. I despise them. The father of the shopping mall was an Austrian architect called Victor Gruen and you may be surprised to learn that he also despised them. Why then, did he invent them?

I’ve written about Victor Gruen before and will copy/paste from that old post: he was Jewish and fled Austria for America in 1938 where he lashed out at American suburbia, describing the roads as,

“avenues of horror,” “flanked by the greatest collection of vulgarity—billboards, motels, gas stations, shanties, car lots, miscellaneous industrial equipment, hot dog stands, wayside stores—ever collected by mankind.”

He had intended for his shopping mall to be a little bit of Europe in America by providing a car-free urban space where people from all walks of life could socialise and mingle at their leisure. His original plan included residential housing, schools, medical centres, a park and a lake, but these were never realised.

Later in his life, by which time shopping malls had become the staple of American suburbia, Malcolm Gladwell writes:

…he revisited one of his old shopping centers, and saw all the sprawling development around it, and pronounced himself in “severe emotional shock.” Malls, he said, had been disfigured by “the ugliness and discomfort of the land-wasting seas of parking” around them. Developers were interested only in profit. “I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments,” he said in a speech in London, in 1978. He turned away from his adopted country. He had fixed up a country house outside of Vienna, and soon he moved back home for good. But what did he find when he got there? Just south of old Vienna, a mall had been built—in his anguished words, a “gigantic shopping machine.” It was putting the beloved independent shopkeepers of Vienna out of business. It was crushing the life of his city. He was devastated. Victor Gruen invented the shopping mall in order to make America more like Vienna. He ended up making Vienna more like America. 

We know the high street is dying and we know shopping malls are thriving and this in turn is accelerating high street decline. But how do we reverse this decline and the cancerous growth of shopping malls?

A study by Transport for London found that people walking, cycling and using public transport spend 40% more per month at their local shops than people driving. Cycle parking delivers 5 times the retail spend per square metre than the same area of car parking and improvements to pedestrian and cycling infrastructure can increase retail spend by up to 30%.

Internet shopping is here to stay but it doesn’t have to be a death sentence for the high street. In the Aberdeen Cycle Forum’s vision for King Street we see a woman on rollerblades, a man on a disability scooter, and people on bikes – these are the shoppers and they don’t need car parking but right now they are excluded from the high street because there’s no safe space for them to use.

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