Gina Davidson: In the dark over transport vision

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THERE was a time (in my mind it’s before the invention of Technicolor – the world was a rather monochromatic place and everyone wore hats) when people seemed to be able to get around Edinburgh with consummate ease.

Admittedly, fewer people owned cars, but every road was available to them for the purposes of getting from A to B. In fact, should they so require, they could even park on Princes Street – a mind-blowing thought.

But then not having a car wasn’t an issue. There were two bus companies which ran routes all over town, and even if they were not as frequent as today and the words “limited stop” hadn’t yet been invented, they were well used. There was a railway which ran around the city and could take people from Waverley to Morningside or Piershill or Craigmillar. There were even trams.

For those who can remember such heady days of public transport, Edinburgh must have been some kind of 1950s vehicular utopia.

If only it had remained so, for those halcyon days offered exactly the kind of integrated transport system that Edinburgh needs today.

In the second half of the previous century and now 12 years into this one, despite all sorts of strategies and glossy brochures, the city has become increasingly difficult to get around.

There are those who claim that this is because of policies set by an anti-car Labour administration. It’s hard to argue against: roads were blocked or pedestrianised, one-way systems introduced, speed bumps built on the shortest of roads, parking fees – and fines – raised, and then raised again.

Greenways reduced road space, speed cameras were put up, cycle lanes saw the streets painted pink. The car was definitely vehicle-non-grata.

However, like it or not, the one change which worked spectacularly well was Greenways. Passenger numbers soared as buses were able to get around much more quickly. Drivers hated them, but they did the trick – and proved that if public transport could be efficient, clean and punctual then people would use it. As a result, Lothian Buses has become the most successful bus company in the UK.

But that’s where the success ends. The long-discussed metro never happened, moves to reopen the South Suburban Railway have come and gone, the guided busway only ran on one route and has since been abandoned, congestion charging was taken to a referendum and ultimately thrown out, even changes to the traffic flow in the New Town – the hated Central Edinburgh Traffic Management Scheme – were eventually overturned, while the reintroduction of trams is a running sore.

Of course it’s not the first time Edinburgh has been entangled in knots over transport. In 1972 there was the Alternative Transport Strategy, which could have seen a rail-based scheme return to the city, but councillors failed to push ahead – even though it would have been preferred to an idea also being floated of flyovers across the Meadows, massive city centre car parks, spurs and tunnels and a new Dean Bridge.

Since then there has been only one solution – more people on buses. Now the new solution seems to be the tram. But apart from the one, rather shortened route, there is no other “big idea” for transport in the city.

Whether you liked what former transport leader David Begg wanted to do, or not, at least you knew his plan – get people out of cars before gridlock became a reality, but give them the carrot of a good, integrated public transport system as a realistic alternative. So why is it all so difficult? During Begg’s time it was easy to have pro and anti-car political splits over strategy, but these days that argument has been won. Cars just aren’t good for our health, or the planet. There can be little debate that public transport is the way forward – so what’s stopping us?

There are many people who have changed their travel habits and got on their bikes or the bus to prevent car-mageddon, but it’s still on the horizon.

Yet the current Scottish Government has made it clear that it does not like the tram. Why it has to be convinced of its merits I don’t understand – though I comprehend its horror at the way the project has been handled.

But it cannot allow our only major public transport initiative to fail. Nor can it, at the same time, make life harder for Lothian Buses by reducing its grant, which will put fares up, cut routes, and ultimately put people back in their own driving seats.

It’s great news that the council administration has decided to write to Transport Minister Keith Brown to ask him to review the changes to the Bus Service Operators Grant. Here’s hoping he listens.

But what Edinburgh really needs is a new vision. One which involves cars but gives people a real alternative to get about quickly. The tram is the start, but given the pig’s ear that’s been made of the project, it will be hard to convince the public that more such schemes need to happen.

It’ll be even harder to find the money to pay for them, but if we do want to live in a clean city in which it is once again easy to move around, then an integrated transport system is what’s required.

Perhaps Keith Brown has such a vision. Perhaps someone at Transport Scotland does. Perhaps somewhere within the council there is someone desperate to show those in power what could be done. Perhaps, say it quietly, we need a new David Begg.