Friday, 3 February 2017

Walkable Retail is Winning Retail - Time to Pedestrianise Melbourne's Elizabeth Street

It drives me to utter despair, particularly as someone who's been a lifelong evangelist for the sector,  when retailers perpetually oppose anything to impact traffic flow on their surrounding streets.

It makes me even madder when those same people retail in the CBD. How many drive-through  establishments are there in the CBD?? What proportion of your traffic arrives at your store by foot? And what percentage of that traffic came to the CBD by car?? And for what proportion of that traffic would the location or proximity of the carpark be a factor in their purchase decision?

I'll answer. There are ZERO drive throughs. ONE HUNDRED per cent of your traffic arrives at your store by foot. A MAXIMUM of fifty per cent of them have a car already parked somewhere in the CBD. Approximately NONE of them are in your store because they were able to get a car park out the front.

So, here's the rule. Improve your urban realm for pedestrians, and ALWAYS reap retail rewards. And that of course, is exactly what retailers learned when Swanston was closed. Do we hear any of them calling for its reopening?

Foot traffic on Swanston Street today rivals Oxford Street in London, and the Bourke Street Mall has some of the highest retail rents per square meter in the world.

Car usage is a massively inelastic behaviour. Getting people to change their car usage habits in any direction is REALLY hard. So say all the statistics. And that's why it's perfectly simple to design spaces that significantly improve the urban realm for pedestrian/cycling/public transport without terribly much impacting car usage, and most importantly why doing so will improve overall volume for the critical retail metric - on street foot traffic.

And here's a recent case study from the US that has specifically borne this out. Foot traffic doubled, and retail sales up 9% ... and that's massive in terms of being a factor of a single policy initiative not even specifically directed towards that outcome.

I would make some exceptions for the Queen Victoria Market, which is unique within the CBD in that it does see a lot of car-dependent traffic, and is about the only specific-destination retailer in the CBD. So while it is important that access to the market carpark would be undisturbed, closing Elizabeth Street would in no way impact that. Nobody is not coming to the market because they have to use Queen instead of Elizabeth to get to the carpark.

Yet we can’t afford to continue putting the car at the top of our planning priorities, particularly in Melbourne’s CBD. Nobody who lives anywhere within Zone One has any excuse for driving to the CBD. Ever. Full stop.

So, I am calling today once again for the maximal pedestrianisation of Elizabeth Street its entire length from Victoria to Flinders Street, closing the street to both car and bicycle traffic permanently.

Visions of a pedestrian future for Elizabeth - Swanston Street today

I first mooted this plan at Council elections last year, but it sank into the broader discourse. I did, however get absolutely massive engagement for my sponsored Facebook posts on the topic, with the majority giving it a giant thumbs up.

A smaller number were defending the status quo without much concrete evidence to show how the present is better than my imagined future. Most appeared interested in mounting aggressive defenses of why their special circumstances meant they should have a right to drive to the CBD.

Elizabeth street carries almost no vehicle through traffic today, and as much has already been acknowledged by the RACV's Brian Negus, who already supports closing the street from Flinders to Bourke. Making those who were opposing my plans more troglodytic than the State's peak road lobby group. Ponder that for a minute.

My plan would effectively link most of Melbourne’s biggest drawcard retailers within a “walkable pedestrian core”, making the area bounded by Swanston and Elizabeth streets, and including the Bourke Street Mall one of the world’s largest car-free outdoor shopping destinations.

The plan was also linked in to new retail marketing initiatives, seeking to make the "small scale Victorian" nature of the majority of shopfronts on Elizabeth and Swanston a unique selling point of Melbourne CBD retail. This was also connected policy-wise to new CBD-retail-specific marketing initiatives.

And it’s not just hot air. With the recent arrival of some big international names and the size and concentration of our retail core, Melbourne now has a real claim to being the Asia-Pacific’s premier retail destination, and we should be making this our unique civic selling point within the region. My policy called for specific regional marketing campaigns supporting this.

Melbourne's Proposed "Walkable" Retail Core
-see bottom of article for legend

My plan would have seen footpaths widened, and new street furniture and tree plantings between Victoria and Flinders Streets.

The scheme would also have seen the loss of short term car parks and loading zones compensated for by seeing the City of Melbourne begin strategically buying up long-term car-parks around the CBD for this purpose.

The plan envisaged the creation of market-style kiosks along the redeveloped strip, to attract independent retailers, hawker-style food outlets, local designers and artists, highlighting the diversity and range of Melbourne’s unique retail offering.

The plan did not envisage encouraging cycling along the strip, instead focussing on concentrating cycle traffic on to Swanston Street as the city's designated North-South cycleway.   

It's also an opportunity to create a new plaza entrance for the Queen Victoria Market, something that is sorely lacking from the current redevelopment plans, and more obviously to do something really creative with the "disreputable stretch” of the street at its Flinders Street end.

Have you got any better ideas for pedestrianisation initiatives for Melbourne? We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments here.

Retail Core Map (Above) Legend
1. Queen Victoria Market
2. Melbourne Central
3. Emporium
4. H&M
5. Myer
6. Block Arcade
7. David Jones
8. St Collins Lane
9. Collins 234
10. Centreway Arcade
11. Degraves Street

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