Beyond Spin: What Will City Centre Transport Changes Mean For Retail?

You might have heard that Dublin city-centre spending could fall by nearly a quarter if planned traffic restrictions go ahead. If so, you’ve heard what the Irish Parking Association wanted you to hear, which some Irish media outlets parroted with only minimal investigation or analysis.

Let’s take a closer look, and see whether the lobby group’s press release headline is accurate.

At the beginning of this week, the Irish Parking Association released the results of a survey it had commissioned from researchers-for-hire Red C. The aim as they told it? To pin down the possible impact on city-centre retail of proposals in the under-debate city-centre transport study.

In the next few months, the city centre transport study – which rejigs traffic flows in the city centre – is going to be poked, prodded, and shouted about. The window for submissions from the public closed last Friday. In September, councillors on the Dublin City Council’s transport committee will get a report on the different views that have piled in.

By commissioning this study, the Irish Parking Association said, it’s highlighting the potential impact on shoppers. Its headline findings were stark.

Among them: that shoppers coming in by car account for 41 percent of the spend by “planned shoppers” – more about who they are later – and that almost three in five “planned shoppers” who visited by car claimed they wouldn’t have done so if they could not have travelled in by car.

Based on these figures, the study finds that the potential knock-on effect of the proposed traffic changes is a 24-percent decline in overall shopping and entertainment revenue from – here they are again – “planned shoppers”.

But are these figures sound? Do they even relate to what is planned for city centre transport? And who are “planned shoppers”?

Who took this survey?

The first thing to note is that the Irish Parking Association survey honed in on who they call “planned shoppers”, people who had come into the city centre with the express purpose of shopping. They struck out tourists, workers and students, and non-shoppers or grab-and-go shoppers, who might be picking up a sandwich or something small.

That’s because, the IPA survey states, they want to rule out people who are least likely to be affected by traffic-management proposals. Tourists will be on public transport anyways, and workers and students will still be passing through.

Why grab-and-go shoppers are excluded isn’t clarified. The survey just says: “It is imperative we speak to those travelling for ‘planned’ shopping behaviour to establish potential impact of the NTA’s traffic management proposal in Dublin City Centre.”

But why just “planned shoppers”? If you’re wanting to look at the overall effect of proposals on city-centre shoppers, doesn’t it skew the sample to only look at those who you think are most likely to be affected? Doesn’t it make it look like a greater proportion of people will be affected than, in reality, will be?

“We were more concerned with the impact on retail spending of the planned changes, so we interviewed people who had come specifically into Dublin to shop,” said IPA Chairman Keith Gavin. “The whole point of our research was the impact of shoppers so we focused on shoppers.” 

How big a deal is that?

While the IPA’s approach might seem squiffy, it might not make as much difference as you think. At least not if a similar study done late last year by the National Transport Authority and other researchers-for-hire, Millward Brown, is anything to go by.

They looked at city centre shoppers, modes of transport, and how much is spent by people coming into the city by different modes. While they asked pretty much everybody they came across, apart from tourists, they also broke down the figures handily.

So, you can see the estimated total spends for those who come in only for shopping – or “planned shoppers” – and for those who pop in to town for some other reason.

When the sample was all respondents, bus users accounted for 39 percent of spending in the city centre, rail and Luas users for 20 percent, walkers for 20 percent, and car users for 18 percent.  

When the sample was just those whose only reason for visiting was shopping, or “planned shoppers”, bus users accounted for 34 percent of spending in the city centre, walkers for 28 percent, car users for 19 percent, and Luas users for 16 percent.

There are differences, but not really for car users.

41 percent of the spend or 19 percent of the spend?

A major finding of the IPA’s study is that 41 percent of the city-centre spend comes from “planned shoppers” that arrive by car. This is more than double what the NTA/Millward Brown study found for those whose only reason for visiting was shopping.

So how did they end up with such different figures?

A crucial difference between the two seems to be that the NTA asks respondents how often they travel into the centre. They take the average of how often different mode users visit the city and multiply it by the average spend of those surveyed to get an idea of how much they contribute to the city-centre economy over a month.

But the IPA says they decided not to multiply the the average spend by the frequency of visit because they surveyed over two weeks, and feel their sample is representative of the overall average. The IPA’s Keith Gavin calls the decision to multiply the average spend of those surveyed a  “major flaw” in the methodology of the NTA/Millward Brown study.

“They already had a bias in their numbers: the sample they had chosen was made up of the entire population based on, obviously people coming in on public transport come in on more visits,” Gavin said. “Then they took their figures and multiplied it by the number of visits to arrive at a figure that we find to be totally misleading.”

A 24-percent decline in overall shopping?

One of the other headline findings of the research is that “the potential impact of the traffic management proposal in Dublin city centre is for a 24% decline in overall shopping and entertainment revenue among ‘planned shoppers’.”

It’s this statistic that has perhaps garnered the most attention. But how did the Irish Parking Association and Red C get to this number? First thing to note is, again, that it is talking about “planned shoppers” not all people who might be shopping in the city centre.

The 24 percent decline figure is based on a chain of questions. Firstly, how much “planned shoppers” who travel by car spend. And secondly, how many of those car users said that it was “unlikely” that they’d come in to the city if they had “not been able to drive into or park in town”.

First, researchers ask “planned shoppers” this:

“Dublin City Council and the National Transport Authority have unveiled proposals to place a ban on private cars on parts of the north and south quays, and closing down city centre car parks and building a new facility at Heuston Station to discourage cars from entering the city centre; plus a complete ban on cars and taxis from College Green. Were you aware of these proposals before today?”

Then, they asked this:

“How likely, if at all, would you have been to visit the city centre today if you had not been able to drive or park in town?”

They found that one in three were aware of these proposals. Which is surprising, perhaps, given that Dublin City Council and the National Transport Authority haven’t proposed closing down city-centre car parks.

In addition, 59 percent of car users, which accounted for 19 percent of “planned shoppers”, said they were unlikely to have visited.

The researchers then took the percentage of car shoppers who would have been unlikely to visit  – which in a subsequent table has slid into “would not visit” – and multiplied that by their calculated revenue from car shoppers, to get the 24-percent decline figure.

This, it is said, shows the potential impact of the proposals in the transport plan.

But is the question misleading? It seems so. As transport planners tell it, they have no intention of closing all city centre-car parks. Some might be a bit more difficult to get to, but there’ll still be access. A couple might even have to close, but that’s still being worked out.

There’s never been any question that cars would  not be able to park in town. At least, not if we believe the frequently-asked-questions section of the Dublin City Council’s page on the transport study. There, it says:  

“access will continue to be provided to all the multi-storey car parks in the City Centre. However, for some car parks, the access route to the car park will have to change and access may be limited to one route only, which may differ from the current access routes. Revised signage arrangements for the City Centre car parks would be put in place as part of the overall proposals.”

That’s not the picture that the IPA’s Keith Gavin is painting. “It’s an option to close down certain city-centre car parks – make park-and-ride facilities, make taxi facilities. They’re only options for consultation and consideration, it’s not set in stone but it’s set out as an option,” he said.

In certain places, he argues, there may be a change of use of car parks. “The specific plans and the specific proposed traffic layout make certain car parks physically inaccessible,” says Gavin. He points to the Fleet Street Car Park, and the Arnott’s Car Park as potential casualties, but then adds that the Arnott’s car park could be accessed  – although “with great difficulty” – through a laneway.

Gavin said that the questions asked of “planned shoppers” didn’t say that drivers couldn’t get to car parks.

“We’re not saying they can’t get to them, but the difficulty of accessing them and the route then would result… would make it extremely difficult for drivers to get to their chosen destination and just making it more difficult and less attractive in the city centre as a retail destination as opposed to competing out-of-town centres,” he said.

But that isn’t what the questions that were asked implied.

What the media said

It’s not like the Irish Parking Institute or Red C have hidden who they asked or what they asked. They have been perfectly open and willing to talk about the study. Which makes it even stranger that we the media haven’t looked too closely at the findings. Perhaps a casualty of need-for-speed syndrome?

Rather than a survey of “planned shoppers”, it has become a study of all shoppers in TheJournal.ie (which also seemed to muddle up the transport-study proposals with traffic restrictions due to Luas works).

The Irish Mirror, meanwhile, doesn’t mention that the study relates to a subset of shoppers, suggests that it’s a survey commissioned by the Irish Parking Association and the National Transport Authority (the latter is not involved) and notes that: “The report also found the restrictions would also put tourists off coming to the capital”.

But, tourists were expressly excluded from the survey, because – the survey notes – “they are likely taking public transport anyway and will be unlikely to be impacted by the NTA’s traffic management proposal in Dublin City Centre.”

Even the Irish Times doesn’t mention which cohort of shoppers was asked, and what they were asked. Surely, a survey sponsored by an organisation with an obvious and understandable interest in promoting car users deserves a bit more interrogation.

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Author:

Lois Kapila and Willy Simon: Lois Kapila is Dublin Inquirer's managing editor and general-assignment reporter. Want to share a comment or a tip with her? Send an email to her at info@dubinq.com.

Willy Simon is Dublin Inquirer's planning and transport reporter. Want to share a comment or a tip with him? Send an email to him at wsimon@dubinq.com.

Reader responses

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AJWD
at 12 August 2015 at 14:09

I do not have a car and tend to avoid city centre shopping because there are too many cars and there is too little public transport. If the planned changes lead to better traffic flow and more frequent, reliable buses, I’ll probably do more shopping in the city centre …. not that anybody asked me

Urban Mode
at 12 August 2015 at 16:40

In a survey published by … wait for it… the National Transport Authority in February 2015, shopping behaviour and spend were analysed per travel mode cohort. Car-based shoppers account for only €1 out of every €5 spent in Dublin City Centre.
[https://www.nationaltransport.ie/…

Now to get to this gem of info that neatly puts the Irish Parking Association’s study in perspective, all journalists had to do is use Google search.

Dave G
at 13 August 2015 at 16:07

great article well done
– enjoing my new esstential reading “dublininquirer”!

Noel McFarlane
at 14 August 2015 at 11:55

A crucial look at journalistIc failures when moneyed interests can buy a public debate.

Jonivar Skullerud
at 17 August 2015 at 09:54

Another fallacy which really should be pointed out is the repeated claim that only car users will be affected by the changes. Really? What about all those pedestrians, including tourists and public transport users, who are positively affected?

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