Not quite a city centre vision

Green Transport Spokesperson Nigel Bagshaw ponders the “city centre vision” which comes before this week’s Transport and Environment Committee for a 12 month trial.

[NOTE: after this blog was published the City Council agreeed to delay the changes until a further report in August 2013]

Everyone has a view about Edinburgh’s city centre. These are often competing views and achieving universal consensus is near impossible.

So developing a long term view of the city centre needs leadership. And it means starting from recognising what works.

What works internationally are city centres designed around people, not cars. Show me a city centre which is thriving – socially, economically and environmentally – and what it will have is higher priority to pedestrians and cyclists; more space for informal interaction and enhanced green space. These are the city centres that work.

Three years ago, the City Council commissioned urban design specialists Jan Gehl to apply that international logic to Scotland’s capital. In the report, produced in 2011, many of the above features are confirmed with detailed evidence and specific suggestions made.

This week’s paper to Committee is an effort to put these suggestions into place. It has important and welcome recommendations, such as diversifying the uses of shops on Princes Street, improving and extending pavements and removing street clutter.

However, on key aspects of transport I believe the 12 month pilot is taking a wrong turn. The Gehl report was rightly critical of bus congestion on Princes Street but argued that this needed a city-wide approach, not just displacing buses from one street to the next. At the heart of this week’s proposals is creating a new one way system along George Street, east-bound and Princes Street west-bound. This has the consequence of dramatically reducing cycle access on the city’s premier street, so that bikes have to mix with other forms of transport west-bound and are banned east-bound altogether. This sends quite the wrong message at a time when the city needs to up cycle use dramatically to meet its own targets.

So what needs to happen? The city’s short term (even 12 month pilot) aims need to be consistent with long term aspirations.

A two-way dedicated cycle route is needed on Princes Street, in order to embed cycling at the literal heart of what the city does and to retain connections to the south and west of the city, via the Bridges and Lothian Road. For Scotland’s capital city to treat cyclists as afterthoughts on its most prestigous streets is quite wrong and quite inconsistent with the Gehl vision.

Looking ahead, a clearer vision for George Street as traffic free, welcoming pedestrians and cyclists, is needed, taking a lead from the apparent success of Glasgow’s Buchanan Street, which seems to have no lack of footfall and no lack of prospering shops. Above all, however, we need a long term approach that does not just try to re-configure the same volume of traffic in the same space. The city centre needs a dramatic reduction in motor transport in order to thrive.

Councillors of every party will hear people quite rightly complaining about the effect that the sheer volume of traffic has on quality of life in their own communities.  The city centre can set a lead for other areas to follow.