The Path not Taken: City Region Deal and Active Travel

Dan Heap and Gavin Corbett argue that Edinburgh is missing a trick on the economic importance of active travel.

What do roads, roundabouts and rail-links all have in common? Apart from all starting with “R”, the answer is that they are each regarded as a vital part of economic infrastructure. In order to get people to work and to move goods around, effective and efficient transport is needed.

The case is contested in the case of roads and roundabouts as yet more road space can simply lead to yet more vehicle demand and further traffic jams. That is why mass transit, like trains, buses and trams are so important if the Edinburgh city region is slash congestion and tackle pollution.

Yet, the missing jigsaw piece is what is called in transport jargon “active travel” – walking and cycling to most of us. Around 50,000 people walk or cycle to work in Edinburgh each day, but when has the city ever seen provision of good pedestrian access or a cycle path as economically important?

So the City Region Deal for South East Scotland, a multi-billion pound package for economic development, has, as it stands, plenty of the above 3 “Rs” but so far has missed the role of active travel in building the kind of sustainable, jobs-rich, high-value economy which is Edinburgh’s only future.

This is odd because in other city deals, such as Lancashire or Cambridge, the programmes do include active travel. Further afield, cities like Copenhagen or Amsterdam consider cycle superhighways as critical to future economic competitiveness, fostering much more attractive centres and employee health and wellbeing alike. These are the cities against which Edinburgh is being weighed.

Let’s take one example, from the South West of Edinburgh, where we are both located. The Union canal towpath is an increasingly important and attractive route into Edinburgh city centre, from the near parts of West Lothian and the city itself. Indeed, since the Millenium Link was restored, the canal’s role in opening access to and changing perceptions of Wester Hailes cannot be underestimated.

The city wants and needs more people to make journeys by foot and by pedal. This is even more so when we see how close the canal is to Wester Hailes, Sighthill and Broomhouse, where some of the city’s pockets of real poverty are found. In the Calders 80% of the residents don’t have access to cars (a supreme irony given how landlocked the neighbourhood is by super-busy roads). What would the impact be if the canal were much more connected to the residents’ lives, both as a source of wellbeing and leisure but also as a route into the city. What an opportunity that would be!

The opportunity would be hugely enhanced if it was linked into existing projects, such as social enterprises Bridge8 or the Bike Station to ensure that local people had access to bikes or bike sharing needed to take advantage of the route on their doorstep.

However, the canal towpath is also a victim of its own success – with more bikes and pedestrians competing for narrow shared space. Simply loading more people onto that narrow space is a recipe for conflict. So what is needed is bold and imaginative thinking about how the towpath will function in the next 10 or 20 years. Creating safe and usable parallel routes – for example, Lanark Road, Slateford Road and Gorgie Road is one part of it, particular for faster cyclists. But we also believe that transforming the canalside so that it benefits both cyclists and pedestrians by giving them separate space, on a wider path, should be on the horizon.

Would it be ambitious? In Scottish terms, yes, although at a fraction of the cost of other big transport plans in the City Region Deal. And nothing compared to what our competitors are forging ahead with.

A city region deal which is silent on the travel to work choice of tens of thousands of Edinburgh residents is surely missing a trick.

Dan Heap is the Green candidate for Sighthill-Gorgie and Gavin Corbett is the Green councillor for Fountainbridge-Craiglockhart, both in south west Edinburgh.