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Council says Communities Secretary wrong and its policies are supported by retailers; evidence from elsewhere suggests cycling positive for shops

Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles says that parking charges in Cambridge are too high and disadvantage motorists, and has suggested that prioritising cyclists over motorists favours an “elite” rather than ordinary people who want to use cars to visit shops.

Mr Pickles' comments come towards the end of a week in which he urged local authorities to do away with “Draconian” parking charges and infrastructure such as speed humps to make it easier for people to drive to high street shops.

But Cambridge City Council says that local retailers support its transport policies, which are focused on improving cycling infrastructure as well as buses to make it easier for people to get around.

The city has the highest proportion of cyclists in the UK – half the people who live there cycle at least once a week, and one in five commuter trips are made by bicycle.

Commenting on new planning guidance issued earlier this week, which is not obligatory for local authorities to follow, Mr Pickles warned that “anti-car dogma” meant that shoppers were increasingly deserting town centres for out-of-town superstores, or were shopping online.

He told Cambridge News that the East Anglian city was one of those to which his comments applied, and that while councils were free to set their own parking charges, he believed those set by the council – up to £26 for a day in a multi-storey car park was cited by the website – was too high.

“I accept there is a historic part of Cambridge that makes it not particularly friendly to cars and that’s the nature of having a very ancient city but, if we don’t put our plans together on how people live and how some of the elite think we should live, we are just asking for trouble,” he said.

“While this is not the sole cause of the high street’s problems, it is certainly a contributory factor.”

He conceded that it was impossible to destroy historic buildings to provide space for motor vehicles – little prospect of King’s College Chapel making way for a multi-storey car park, then – but maintained that cyclists should not be put first in the way that motorists have been in the past.

“What I’m seeking is not to replace one binding ideology with another, I’m asking for basic common sense and pragmatism,” he said.

Mr Pickles flagged up research from the Association of Town and City Management that claims to have found a strong correlation between the availability of parking spaces and footfall in town centres.

The body says that in viewing parking charges and fines as a means of raising revenue, they have lost sight of what the prime focus of parking management should be.

However, studies from elsewhere strongly suggest that policies that favour cycling do have a beneficial effect on the local economy.

Research commissioned by the City of Copenhagen presented at the Velo City Conference in Vienna in June found that while cyclists may spend less per visit than drivers when they go to local shops, over the course of a year, they spend more in aggregate.

Moreover, bicycles, not cars, are the most frequent mode of transport used to access local shops – but the lack of adequate cycle parking provision was a barrier to getting more people to use their bikes to go shopping.

Meanwhile, a recent article on the Seattle Transit Blog showed the startling impact of the custom of cyclists on the takings of retailers on one road where bike lanes had been installed and parking spaces removed, with revenues up as much as fourfold during the subsequent six months.

Responding to Mr Pickles’ comments, Councillor Tim Ward, Cambridge City Council’s executive councillor for sustainable transport, told Cambridge News that the secretary for state’s views were incorrect and that the council was doing the right thing in investing in cycle parking and other infrastructure.

He also pointed out that the issue of car parking in Cambridge were not typical, due to tourism and commuting; lying an hour by train from London, many residents commute to London for work, and the city is one of the most visited tourist destinations in the UK.

“If Mr Pickles is interested in the wellbeing of retailers, he should listen to them,” said Councillor Ward.

“Retailers want people coming in spending two to three hours shopping, they don’t want the car parks silting up with commuters and tourists and them not being available to shoppers, which would happen if we took the prices down.

“We are busy providing a lot more parking spaces in the city centre in the next few months, for something like 800 bicycles, and figures show it doesn’t take many cyclists to equal one car driver in terms of retail spend,” he added.

Cambridge was also visited this week by minister for cycling Norman Baker, who was there to see first-hand the city’s cycling infrastructure on the day he unveiled the government’s response to the Get Britain Cycling report. The response has met with a lukewarm reception from cyclists.

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.