Peter Hawkins: Traffic-free Princes Street offers bold step to future

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Ten years ago, the idea of a traffic-free Princes Street would have been inconceivable. Today many people, especially those who have travelled in Europe, are realising how very much better this iconic street could be if nearly all traffic was removed.

Ordinary traffic was excluded from the street a few years ago, but even with traffic restricted to buses and taxis, the street is still very congested, noisy and polluted. The 20mph speed limit is widely ignored, which makes the street threatening and dangerous for pedestrians, cyclists and the disabled, while the classic views of the Castle, the assembly buildings and the dramatic cliffs are all but obscured by passing double-deckers.

Last Monday, backed by Spokes, I launched a petition on the city council’s newly-created petitions website calling for a Princes Street dedicated to pedestrians, cyclists and trams only. The vision is a street transformed: quiet, non-threatening, unpolluted, enabling people to go about their business – mainly shopping – but also enjoying the ambience of the street. European experience shows the likely emergence of a cafe culture, and though one may laugh at this in view of the climate, it has happened in Copenhagen, a city just as far north as us, where cafe culture has been extended from two months a year to ten months.

The vision, then, is of a street, a place where people WANT to be, rather than where they HAVE to be; a place to which people enjoy coming. The issue is whether we want this vision to become reality, as now seems possible. Experience elsewhere shows that business would not suffer – pedestrianised streets are very popular, shopping footfall increases, new kinds of shops open up, with more variety, providing new opportunities.

For cyclists, there is an urgent need for a cross-city east-west route, and Princes Street is the best choice. The other possibilities are Rose Street and George Street, but Rose Street is narrow and already congested with pedestrians, whereas George Street is dangerous, with a high volume of traffic, numerous junctions and motorists cruising as they look for parking spaces, making unexpected, sudden manoeuvres.

There have been a number of nasty accidents involving cyclists and the tram lines, mostly caused by cyclists having to make sudden turns to avoid buses and taxis. When you add trams into the mix, someone is going to get seriously injured or worse. Removing the traffic and providing a segregated cycle lane would make the street much safer.

Obviously there would be consequences of all this as the buses and taxis would have to go somewhere, and I do respect the concerns of residents and businesses in the peripheral streets. This would have to be carefully considered and consulted upon if the petition is successful, but with a proper strategic approach and innovative specialist advice, I am confident the right solution can be found.

The petition is going well and has already attracted more than 300 signatures in less than a week. Reactions have been overwhelmingly positive, but there have inevitably been misunderstandings and opposition to change. The council’s rules did not allow us to include additional information within the petition, but there is a related article on the Spokes website, which we recommend people read at www.spokes.co.uk to get a fuller picture of the proposal.

If one picture is worth a thousand words, this article has a photo of Princes Street as it is now, showing a cyclist totally hemmed in by buses, and another of how it was a year or so ago, when all traffic was banned during the tram works – a taster of what the street might become.

There have been negative comments and one suggested that our proposals would ban disabled people from Princes Street. However, the petition asks for Princes Street to be “inclusive, catering for people of all abilities”. We have suggested ideas such as a free electric shuttle bus along the street, connecting up to surrounding bus stops, and other innovative solutions such as free central-area mobility scooters available to hire for a few hours.

This sort of thing, and much more, would need to be investigated thoroughly if the council decides to take our petition seriously.

We believe that what matters is the vision and the boost this could provide to our city. Yes, there will be problems, but we are sure that with consideration and a willingness to compromise, this modern vision could become a reality that could make a big difference to Edinburgh, its people and its future.

• Peter Hawkins is a member of Spokes, who has put forward a petition to the city council asking for traffic to be banned from Princes Street.

YOUR VIEWS ON EDINBURGHNEWS.COM

Grumpinuts: Great idea . . . they tried it in Paisley 10-15 years ago, killed the town centre stone dead, played right into the hands of the newly opened Braehead with free parking and motorway links. Google Paisley High Street aka tumbleweed central.

Dot Lawson: Can someone please spare a thought here for the many people who work in the city centre of Edinburgh that need to get to their office/shop at a certain time in the morning without having to endure even more diversions. This is not all about tourists/cyclists out for a run.

Frenchman: In most of northern Europe, cyclists commute on lanes that are protected from cars by concrete buffers, rows of trees or parked cars. Edinburgh’s city-centre infrastructure for cyclists, however, is as old as the Old Town.

keyser soze: No one can seriously think that having buses jammed head to tail, as they are at present, can continue. The amount of traffic on Princes Street at present is shocking and removing some, if not all, would be a great move. Why is it that almost every bus route in this city has to travel along Princes Street. It seems that far too many people have lost the power of their legs and can’t even walk from George Street.

http://www.edinburgh.gov.uk/directory_record/212684/princes_street_for_people