Trams to Leith: let’s get it right

Edinburgh Greens’ transport spokesperson Cllr Chas Booth argues that any tram extension to Newhaven must make life easier for those walking and cycling.

On a recent trip to Antwerp in Belgium, I got to experience a high-quality tram system at first hand. It was reliable, efficient and transported a large number of people with no harmful air pollution at source. Exactly what is needed from a modern public transport system, in other words. But it wasn’t only the tram itself that was well-designed and safe – the interaction between tram and those travelling by foot and by bicycle was also exemplary, with plenty of opportunities for pedestrians and cyclists to cross the tram tracks safely and conveniently.

Later this year, Edinburgh councillors will take a decision on whether to give the green light to extending the tram line to Newhaven. This could be a transformational project for the whole of our city, creating pleasant places for people to walk, cycle or simply to shop, go to a café or meet up with friends. We have the potential to dramatically improve the streets of Leith and Newhaven, and to boost our local businesses with higher rates of ‘footfall’, if we do this right first time.

But unfortunately, the designs for the tram extension which went to public consultation earlier this year do not seem to have got it right. They have met with considerable criticism from local community councils, from groups representing pedestrians and cyclists, and from civic heritage groups. Those criticisms are many and varied, but appear to boil down to one problem: the tram extension has been designed as a light rail project with little thought to creating pleasant places, or to how pedestrians and cyclists will get around safely and conveniently.

Living Streets is a group which pushes for better provision for those walking around our city. While they support the extension to Newhaven in principle, and welcome many aspects of the designs, they believe there are too few pedestrian crossings on Leith Walk and too little thought has been put into how people can get to and from the tram stops on foot. Greens have listened carefully to their views. The council must listen too.

Spokes, which devotes considerable volunteer time to improving conditions for cyclists in the capital, again support the extension in principle but believe the proposals which went to consultation would be detrimental to cycling. They believe some sections are “dangerous and unacceptable”. Greens have listened carefully to their views. The council must listen too.

Then there’s the Cockburn Association, our foremost civic organisation working to conserve and enhance Edinburgh’s landscape and heritage. Again, this group supports the tram extension in principle but is highly critical of elements of the design, such as the proposed ‘pedestrian deterrent paving’ which they believe should be removed from the plans altogether. Instead they want to see a pedestrian-centred approach to the plans. Again, Greens have listened carefully to their views. The council must listen too.

So the designs for the tram extension must change. Greens have always said that we will support the tram extension so long as the business case adds up and the council has shown it has learned the lessons from previous tram mismanagement. And it is clear that the project must deliver high-quality provision for pedestrians and cyclists along the tram route.

If the council revises its plans for tram extension taking on board concerns from bodies such as Spokes, Living Streets and the Cockburn Association, and as long as the other tests are still met, then Greens believe the tram project is right for the city and right for Leith.

But if the proposals on the table do not take on board these comments; if they make life more difficult for pedestrians and cyclists and if they don’t comply with the council’s own policies of prioritising pedestrian and cyclist safety and convenience, then Greens cannot support them. I have written to the council’s Transport Convener today making our position clear.

Edinburgh must get the tram extension right, for the sake of future generations. We cannot squander this opportunity to future-proof our city’s transport systems.

Cllr Chas Booth is Green spokesperson for transport