Danger fear over pedestrian delays in city centre

Time is dragging on for our reporter, Nash Riggins. as he waits to cross Princes Street. Picture: Greg Macvean
Time is dragging on for our reporter, Nash Riggins. as he waits to cross Princes Street. Picture: Greg Macvean
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USAIN Bolt – the world’s fastest man– can run it in little over nine seconds

But plodding along a mere 100-metre stretch of Princes Street can now take the average shopper up to six minutes.

Pedestrians face maddening delays at crossings – even when traffic is light – with cars and trams taking priority at city centre junctions. The true scale of the tedious city centre stroll was laid bare after a camera-wielding crusader tested waiting times at Pelican crossings.

The experiment – posted on YouTube – shows pedestrians languishing at a junction for nearly four minutes on Frederick Street as just a handful of vehicles trundle past.

It followed a near two-minute delay negotiating Princes Street as the online campaigner – obeying the Green Cross Code – faces a second “red man” at a traffic island partway across the road.

In the time it took to reach the far side of the Frederick Street junction – a distance of around 100m – famed middle-distance runner Roger Bannister could have traversed a mile-and-a-half. Campiagners today claimed the delays showed pedestrians were being ranked below motorists when deciding who got priority in the city centre.

And a councillor warned frsutration could lead to dangerous behaviour. The city council said it would continue to monitor and refine traffic signals.

Stuart Hay, head of campaign group Living Streets Scotland, said: “I have crossed these lights almost every day for three months, and have regularly seen the frustration they cause to shoppers.

“This is a blatant example where cars are given priority over walkers, contrary to council policy.”

He added: “An urgent rethink is needed.”

The council claims to be putting pedestrians first, hiking up investment in cycling and creating a city centre that is “more people-friendly”.

But tinkering with traffic signals to accommodate trams and ease traffic congestion at Waverley Bridge – where cars have been held at lights for four minutes – appears to be ramping up congestion on the pavements.

On George Street, minutes from slow-moving Princes Street, huge tracts of road have been handed over to pedestrians. The pioneering move was inspired by a 2011 report by urban design consultant Gehl Architects to boost the number of car-free areas in the Capital and remove cumbersome street furniture.

Gehl sought to emulate New York and Melbourne, which successfully introduced pedestrianised zones that “focused heavily on people and how they use places”. It was hoped this could be achieved within five years, but this week’s experiment casts doubt on the aspiration’s chances of success.

In September, Transport leader Lesley Hinds said modifications had been made to the traffic sequences in a bid to reduce congestion at certain times of day on the street.

And just last week, it was announced that cutting-edge technology was already being deployed to further reduce traffic waiting times.

The new system, dubbed Selected Vehicle Priority in the Urban Environment (Spruce), has been rolled out across 21 city centre junctions linked to the tram line.

Spruce works by analysing the speed and frequency that trams move along the line, adjusting signals so they cause less disruption. The technology is still being fine-tuned, with delays expected to drop further at some city junctions.

In a bid to test the Princes Street system, the Evening News dispatched me to cover the same route.

A mid-afternoon trek saw the 100m distance completed in just under four minutes. The disparity from the first study can be explained by junction sequences responding to fluctuations of traffic congestion and – according to the city’s transport department – major events elsewhere in the Capital such as large sporting events or parades.

Tory transport convenor Cllr Joanna Mowat, who represents the city centre, said failing to resolve the delays for pedestrians or motorists could lead to “dangerous behaviour” on the roads.

And she branded the current sequencing times “simply not good enough”. She said: “When the trams were first introduced, the situation for pedestrians on Princes Street was just absolutely diabolical. “Since then, changes have been made and things have got better in some areas.”

But she stressed that reducing waiting times had proven to be a puzzle that was “exceedingly difficult to solve”.

“It seems like the minute we try to make improvements at one crossing, we create another problem at a different crossing just up the road,” she said.

“People have been complaining about cyclists having to wait, cars waiting and now pedestrians. We have to get the system right, because if people are frustrated, they’ll start engaging in dangerous behaviour – be that motorcyclists, bus drivers or pedestrians.

“And the minute someone starts engaging in dangerous behaviour, someone else has to take an evasive manoeuvre and that slows things down more.

“The only way to do that is to keep highlighting problem areas, and chipping away at them.”

A council spokeswoman said improving traffic sequencing for pedestrians, cars and public transport was a matter of trial and error.

She said: “We are aware that when there are irregular traffic volumes or patterns in the city, pedestrians can encounter increased waiting times on and around Princes Street, and this type of feedback from the public is useful in helping us improve the overall pedestrian experience. We will continue monitoring and refining the signalling system to reduce overall delays and improve the pedestrian experience, particularly in the run-up to the busy festive period.”

Referring to the YouTube video illustrating a crossing time of six minutes on the street, she told the News: “This specific incident, along with all other relevant incidents, will be investigated.”

nash.riggins@edinburghnews.com