London and the Car

by George Hatjoullis

There appears to be a fundamental change taking place in London with respect to cars. Young Londoners do not drive. Indeed young Londoners appear not to be learning to drive. The reason is partly economics but it also reflects the increasingly hostile environment that London offers drivers. Parking charges, congestion charges, large fines for infringements. It is easy to infringe with yellow boxes and bus lanes, and complex signs everywhere. It will get worse as pollution concerns enable the Mayor to turn the screw. This is the push element.

There is also a pull element. Public transport in London is improving. There has been substantial investment in London public transport. Crossrail is coming to fruition. New stock on old underground lines. Night tubes! There are plenty of buses on plenty of routes not covered by rail (though the experience of using buses does not seem to have improved much since the Routemaster days). If you travel everywhere by public transport then you can cap weekly and monthly costs.

The shopping experience has also changed with grocery delivery, parcel delivery, and online shopping being much easier and getting better all the time. For the young living in not the best accommodation with cramped conditions and limited storage, a large weekly shop at a supermarket with parking no longer makes sense. You have no car and nowhere to put a large weekly shop. In any case your lifestyle says who knows when you will next be home to cook. Frequent deliveries of small amounts of food is impractical and expensive, as is take-away. What you need is a small convenience store near the tube station or bus stop that keeps long hours and always has some good fresh food in stock.

This seems to be the conclusion of one supermarket, Sainsbury’s. The strategy is to expand the small local stores. The constraint is suitable sites so the strategy is now to seek franchise opportunities. Franchising is always tricky as it is hard to maintain a consistent standard and variability can undermine the brand. The strategy has important implications for the high street.

There has been something of a crisis on the high street as traditional outlets have given way to estate agents, betting shops, charity shops, and coffee chains. The progress of the millennial and their aversion to cars may halt and reverse this process. The high street becomes important when you need to be in walking distance of outlets. As the millennials come to dominate the London population, and old timers like me die off, London may revert to what it once was, a collection of local communities, only now much better connected by public transport. It sounds interesting and rather fun. It sounds cleaner and healthier. The future is bright, the future’s London…