toggle nav

Open for Business: Gaining business support for transforming city centres

Transform Scotland has published a new report titled ‘Open for Business – Gaining business support for transforming city centres’, written for us by Jamie Wylie. The report identifies a series of recommendations on gaining business support for cities aiming to transform their city centres, based on the case of Oslo, which introduced one of the largest car-free zones in Europe, between 2017 and 2019.

The report is supported by John Lauder, Deputy CEO and Executive Director for Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland of Sustrans and Clare Reid, Director of Policy and Public Affairs of the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, who highlight in their foreword how the introduction of car-free cities in Oslo and other European cities “can serve as a source of inspiration for cities here in Scotland”.

After decades of increasing car-dominance in city centres, local authorities have been focusing more on the environmental and societal impacts of allowing motorised transport in city centres. Transforming city centres to prioritise pedestrians, cyclists and public transport over private motorised users to address congestion in city centres is an approach that is increasingly popular and car free city centres have been gaining traction in Scotland. Car-free city centres generally exclude most private car traffic from city centre streets to provide additional space and an improved environment for non-motorised users, while public transport, delivery and disabled access and limited access for residents is usually maintained.

Photo courtesy of Oslo Kommune.

Creating environments where pedestrians, cyclists and public transport are prioritised over private cars, encourages people to spend more time in these spaces. This has social and environmental benefits but also benefits the local economy. Research in areas where car-free zones or similar interventions were introduced, showed that these changes attracted more people to come to the area and spend more in local shops. Studies from the UK have also demonstrated that public realm improvements and limiting car access can significantly reduce shop vacancy rates in city centres.

With high streets already in decline and the covid pandemic having a devastating effect on high street businesses, investing in city centres to make them an attractive destination for people, where they can spend time, relax and support local businesses has become particularly urgent. Reducing the dominance of cars in city centre shopping areas can help with creating a welcoming environment that people will want to visit.

Transforming city centres requires careful consultation to ensure that there is broad support for the initiative and bringing businesses on board is a crucial part of this. Businesses are a central stakeholder in city centres, contributing to economic activity, providing employment and drawing people into the area. While it has been documented that reducing private cars in city centres increases economic activity, these schemes often fail to gain support from businesses that are located in the area. The report explores what the concerns of business owners in Oslo were when the car-free city scheme was introduced and suggests how negative impacts can be mitigated and concerns allayed.

To successfully gain support from the business community the report sets out key recommendations for local authorities aiming to introduce car-free city centres, which include:

  1. Developing close engagement with businesses that demonstrates that their voices are valued and allows local authorities to understand which difficulties businesses are facing.
  2. Early and comprehensive communication that helps businesses understand what to expect. This includes setting out clear objectives for the project, explaining how the project will be delivered and communicating any changes in a timely manner.
  3. Highlighting opportunities of the project to build public confidence in the project.
  4. Delivering improvements early in the process of introducing a new scheme, so opportunities can be demonstrated on the ground from early on in the project.
  5. Implementing and promoting support measures for businesses that allow them to take advantage of opportunities, such as newly created public space.