Footfall in Aberdeen city centre has fallen by a million since the introduction of a series of new bus priority measures throughout some of Aberdeen’s busiest streets.

Parts of Market Street, Guild Street and Bridge Street are now no longer accessible by cars, other than taxis.

The measures have been met with criticism online, while a number of businesses have closed or warned they’re seeing less customers as a result of the bus gates.

Now, publicly available data from Springboard shows that people of the North-east have been voting on bus gates with their feet as fewer and fewer people visit the city centre.

Between August 27, 2023, and April 20, 2024, footfall dropped by nearly 1.1 million.

In the ten weeks prior to the introduction of the bus priority measures, footfall had increased by nearly 30,000.

The data includes temperatures and weather on each given day, though does not offer any suggestion for why footfall may have risen or fallen on each given day, week, or month.

One of the cameras which measures footfall was moved in October 2022, meaning data from before then may be skewed. Between October and April, footfall dropped by more than half a million.

The falling footfall figures, along with the introduction of the new measures and the continuation of the City Centre Masterplan, has plunged the future of Aberdeen into the spotlight.

To discuss the city’s future, the ChamberTalk podcast interviewed a number of key stakeholders.

North East Bus Alliance

Duncan Cameron, Managing Director of First (Scotland), spoke to the podcast on behalf of the North East Bus Alliance.

He said: “We believe, as many others do, to have a vibrant, sustainable city, you need good pedestrianisation and good public transport.

“There’s been a move towards some form of pedestrianisation and the bus priority changes that have taken place have helped improve public transport.

“They have resulted in bus journeys being sped up, which as a result we have made some resource savings to services and we’ve delivered that saving back to the customer.

“I said at the start we wanted this to be a snowball effect. No benefit was going to go to First Bus’s bottom line, it was going to be reinvested.”

First Bus, one of Aberdeen’s two major operators, froze bus prices for 2024/25 as well as offering free weekend transport into the city centre in January, alongside Stagecoach Bluebird.

Pressed further on whether the bus priority measures are proving detrimental to Aberdeen, Duncan said: “You’ve got to be careful not to read too closely into the figures.

“The year-on-year figures have dropped less than what they have across Scotland. Any city centre is working against online retail and other demographic changes.

“The fact the drop has been less than other places in Scotland would suggest we’re actually doing better than average.

“I would ask that we need people to be a bit more objective about the changes that have taken place.”

Fines for illegally driving through a bus gate were increased from £60 to £100 by Aberdeen City Council (ACC) as of April this year.

There are questions over whether people are avoiding the city centre due to fear of being fined.

Duncan argues that the perception of the bus gates is worse than the reality.

“I definitely think there is a perception that we are up against, and that perception will not help footfall numbers.

“We all, if we have got the city centre at heart…need to get behind it and reiterate that Aberdeen is open for business.”

Aberdeen Inspired

Adrian Watson, the Chief Executive of Aberdeen Inspired, the city’s Business Improvement District (BID), also questioned whether the perception of the bus gates is worse than the result.

“At the moment, business have a challenge or two. Some might say it’s perception, some might say it’s just change, but the reality is that we’ve less people coming into the city centre,” he said.

“The bottom line is, we need to see the footfall figures rise.

“The way to do that is to get people into the city and one key essential here is to get behind a concerted effort to demonstrate that we’re open for business, to show that the bus gates can be navigated with relative ease, to show that the car parks are still there.”

Continuing, the former police chief said: “Whether there is a perception out there more, both in the City and in the Shire, that the city is more closed for business, that’s certainly a feeling and I think that’s playing through in the figures.

“It’s incumbent in us all to ensure that the message is clear that the city is still open. It’s not ‘as you were’, there is a transitional period, but [the city] is open for business.”

Aberdeen City Council

Council co-leader Ian Yuill, who has been a councillor since 1995, appeared next on ChamberTalk.

It was his Liberal Democrat group, in partnership with the larger SNP group, who implemented the emergency traffic order (ETO) last August.

He made clear, as with any ETO, it is subject to change: “A city council committee is due in June to review the operation of the bus gates and potentially make changes. I’m waiting to see what the analysis of the consultation responses says, what the data shows and what the council’s traffic management staff recommend.

“My colleagues and I will be taking a view as well.

“The point of an experimental traffic order is so that you can change it. I’m not saying today there will be no changes. We’ll have to wait and see.

“I want the city centre to be a place where people want to spend time, where people enjoy spending time in, where people come into because it’s the real heart of our city.”

Asked about criticism put the council’s way by local businesses, he said: “The council is absolutely on the side of Aberdeen businesses, in particular locally owned and locally operated businesses.

“In my view, those are the future of the city centre, not national chains, important though they are.

“Clearly, some people have said [bus gates are a deterrent due to fear of fines] and I wouldn’t argue with them that that’s a reason they are hesitant.

“What I would say is the signage is very clear for the bus gates, it is only four short stretches of streets in the city centre. You can still access every single off-street car park in the city centre without going through a bus gate.”

Elaine Farquharson-Black

One of the city’s pre-eminent planning lawyers Elaine Farquharson-Black offered her insight on planning challenges faced in the city.

Many of Union Street’s buildings are listed, meaning tighter restrictions on what you can do with them.

Elaine added: “We have tighter planning restrictions but the council and the planning authority is doing things to try and encourage.

“There’s a moratorium on affordable housing contributions to try to encourage developers because they recognise increased costs.

“[Planners] are trying to encourage redevelopment. I’ve done redevelopment of some of the properties on Union Terrace.

“They’ve got planning permission but they haven’t come forward because there was a concern about investment into the city, generally.

“You get that chicken and egg,” she said.

The upper units of Union Street are another talking point. Many of them currently lie vacant and are boarded up.

“It’s quite difficult to convert these with shops below, and how do you get access to the flats? Your waste, your bins, where are they going to go?”

Perhaps renovating them into housing would be an idea. “It would be good, but it’s difficult,” Elaine conceded.

However, as a life-long daughter of Aberdeen, Elaine reckons the future is bright, despite the current challenges.

“I am very optimistic. We have reinvented ourselves over many, many decades. You want to see change, encouraging people to come back into the city centre.

“I’m quite excited about the number of new units and then the other part of Our Union Street and improving the empty buildings. They look nicer.

“We do have a lot to look forward to. The masterplan for, not just Union Street but the wider areas, that just takes time. We’ve got Nuart about to happen again which is always exciting because it encourages you to go back out and rediscover your own city.”

Listen Now

The full episode of ChamberTalk can be found on all major streaming platforms.




More like this…

View all