Differences in footfall across UK town types during COVID-19 lockdown

As the UK government put in place a series of strict public health measures, including a lockdown announced on 23rd March, footfall has become an indicator of national importance.

Citizens are currently only allowed to leave their homes for essential shopping, key work, and exercise, which translates into deserted town centres, the closing down of non-food retail and leisure businesses, and travel bans impacting on tourist destinations (MHCLG, 2020).

Yesterday (6th April), for instance, footfall was down 82.8% compared to the same day last year (Springboard, 2020).


Investigating UK high street footfall

As the professional body for place management, the Institute is involved in understanding footfall across different types of town, and continues to do so during the COVID-19 response.

Research conducted by the Institute has shown that based on footfall and activity patterns, towns can be classified in 4 different types:

  • Comparison – predominantly a retail offer;
  • Holiday – seasonal, and serving holidaymakers;
  • Multifunctional – a mix of retail and other services; and,
  • Speciality – likely including visitor attractions such as heritage or culture.

We were interested to see if there remained any differences in footfall patterns, across these town types, now the population is in lockdown.

As our partners at Springboard provide us with access to UK footfall figures and footfall across the four town types, we have been able to investigate this. 7Th April2Analysis of footfall data from previous weeks shows that, initially, all four town types experienced the same pattern. First, from 15th March all town types have seen footfall fall, when compared to the same period last year. On 23rd March all towns saw footfall rise as citizens were preparing for lockdown. This was followed by a steep decrease in footfall across all four towns to the 28th March – peak #stayathome.

A closer analysis, however, shows there are indeed some differences in how different types of towns are behaving under the COVID-19 lockdown.


Lockdown effect across different town types

Comparison towns, those mostly attracting visitors for their retail offer and international brands, are the least visited, as the great majority of their establishments have been forced to close down.

Large retail centres, full of non-essential shops, are often in city centres where office workers and other employees are no longer commuting into either. In the period since lockdown, comparison town footfall has fallen, on average by 88.8%, compared to the same period last year.

Multifunctional towns are the towns/cities where the retail offer, opening times, events, services and other uses are more focussed on the local community. These towns are still seeing footfall figures fall since lockdown: 82% less, on average, then the same period last year. However, they are more visited than the comparison towns, and marginally more than the other two town types; holiday towns have seen a fall of 82.8% and speciality 82.6%.

When looking at this past Sunday (5th April) differences become more prominent. The good weather appears to have encouraged people to make use of their exercise as there was an increase in footfall of 28.2% when compared to the previous Sunday (29th March).

As can be seen in the table below: speciality towns had 39% more footfall than compared to the previous Sunday, as they are attractive towns to walk around, with heritage and/or natural assets. From our previous research we believe speciality towns also serve their local catchment well, so there is also likely to be a variety of local food shops open.

Comparison towns also saw a 28% in footfall, compared to the previous Sunday. Again, the warmer weather and need for exercise may have prompted residents to walk, run, cycle etc. and perhaps pick up essential shopping from the supermarkets and convenience stores that are open.

Footfall in multifunctional towns increased by 24% from Sunday 29th March. Multifunctional towns appear to be meeting the needs of their local catchment during catchment throughout the week, and activity was boosted by the warmer weather.

Interestingly, the government and police warnings about not visiting beaches and driving to beauty spots seems to have been heeded. As holiday towns saw only a 9% increase in footfall from the following Sunday.

  Mean difference in footfall: 24th March – 6th April 2020
(compared with same period 2019)
Sunday 5th April 2020
(compared with previous Sunday 29th March 2020)
Comparison  88.8%  28%
Holiday  82.8%  9%
Multifunctional  82%  24%
Speciality  82.6%  39%
UK  83.7%  28.2%


Lessons for lockdown and beyond

Going forward, what does this tell us about how towns and cities may be used, post-COVID 19?

The multifunctional centres, those that cater for their local catchment well in terms of their everyday needs (food shopping, greenspace etc.) are becoming more important to people. District and neighbourhoods, the smallest type of multifunctional centre in our Springboard data set, are becoming the focus of many people’s lives and it will be interesting to see if the new habits of finding shops, services and recreational activities ‘near me’ is one that continues.

Speciality towns – our towns with heritage, culture and often natural assets, like a river or coast line – also continue to serve their local catchments with the essentials they need. This may be in contrast to the holiday towns and comparison towns, where success has been built on attracting people from a distance, to shop or to visit – these locations are the most impacted by the current crisis. To what extent pre-COVID 19 footfall levels will return to all of our towns remains to be seen.