Smoothing the rocky roads

Improving basic roads maintenance should be a higher priority than building new roads and roundabouts argues Chas Booth.

The quality of road, pavement and cyclepath surfaces is a problem in Edinburgh. The majority of complaints may come from car drivers but ironically, the impact is felt most acutely by more vulnerable road users. The growing number of city cyclists for whom a rutted junction or a suddenly-looming hole can be a cause of serious injury, for example. Or the elderly pedestrian for whom a trip on a cracked paving slab can spell a long and distressing stay in hospital. And some disabled drivers or passengers experience acute discomfort from rutted surfaces and sudden jolts

The council has a programme to fill potholes and patch up pavements, but I have yet to meet anyone who believes this is adequate. More significant and urgent action is needed, and council officials have calculated the cost at £100m to properly fix our roads and pavements.

The city’s top priority must be reducing the daily pounding that our road surfaces receive, by cutting both the number and weight of vehicles on our roads. One recent study found that a single car does the same damage to the road surface as 3,700 people on bicycles, so investing in new cycle routes to encourage drivers to cycle instead will make a big difference.

The council is taking action to transform the city centre to be more pedestrian-friendly, to introduce a low emission zone and to expand public transport, and these will all help. Greens also want to transfer freight from heavy vehicles to more sustainable options for the ‘last mile’ of their journey, and there’s much more that can be done besides.

But this action to reduce traffic won’t bear fruit overnight, and the state of our roads still needs to be sorted.

So how do we find the £100m shortfall to fix the roads? It is a huge sum but with some imagination, it can be found. For example, the cost of dealing with one junction – the Sheriffhall roundabout – is put at £120m alone: enough to fix all the roads and paths for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians in both Edinburgh and Midlothian.

Added to that, there are already calls from some short-sighted MSPs to add more capacity to the Edinburgh bypass, ignoring decades worth of evidence that bigger roads just means more vehicles and no respite in the long term from congestion. In the old adage, building roads to solve congestion is like loosening your belt to solve obesity: it doesn’t work. So if money can be found for these headline-grabbing prestige new road-building projects, why can’t it be found for basic improvements to ordinary streets? They may be less glamorous but far more people would benefit.

And fixing our roads makes economic sense too: councils currently pay out millions in compensation to those injured on roads and pavements, or for the cost of damaged vehicles due to unfixed potholes. Improving the surface means fewer injuries and less compensation.

Let’s not forget that it’s politicians, either at Holyrood or in the Council Chamber, who set budget rules and priorities. And by continuing to pour money into expensive and flashy new roads, while ignoring the dull but essential funding of roads maintenance, our politicians are failing to serve us properly. It’s precisely this budget structure, which prioritises new over existing, that has to change.

Let’s be clear: simply repairing the roads and then carrying on as normal is a fool’s errand. The city needs a radical transformation on how we travel around, and Greens will continue to push for that action. But we also need decent roads and pavements, and focusingl on fixing them, rather than building new ones, will benefit everyone.