IT’S time to get serious about our city’s transport problems. St John’s Road has attracted headlines as the most polluted road in Scotland, but it’s just the most obvious symptom of an underlying issue – a transport system that doesn’t do enough to incentivise green and active travel.
Let’s begin by acknowledging the progress of the past few years. Taken as a whole, Edinburgh’s air quality is slowly improving. National Cycle Networks have led to big increases in cycle use since 2011.
A little over seven per cent of us now cycle to work, a significant increase on the 1.8 per cent who did so in 1991. More than a third of journeys by Edinburgh residents are made on foot. The Scottish Government’s active travel budget is almost £36 million – a 12 per cent increase on the previous year. Nevertheless, we’re a very long way from cities like Copenhagen, where half of all commutes are by bike.
The cultural shift we need to really change habits will only gain momentum when we invest in the necessary infrastructure and make it feasible – and attractive – for residents to leave their cars behind. After all, a majority of us – especially young families – will hesitate to swap our car for a Brompton until a safe and well-maintained infrastructure is in place, and until we see it frequently used.
The benefits of active travel are beyond dispute. It combats obesity. The air is left a little cleaner, lowering rates of hospital admissions for respiratory problems. It’s also good for motorists, who have quicker commutes on less congested roads.
Public transport too has a critical role to play in this debate. Take the Fife Circle – passengers at South Gyle and Dalmeny during rush hour are often jammed in overloaded carriages and subject to regular delays. When the Forth Road Bridge was briefly closed last year we all saw the notable decrease in traffic in both St John’s Road and Queensferry Road. How do we persuade Fifers to use public transport when the only train service available leaves much to be desired?
The new Gogar interchange will hopefully encourage more people across the Forth to take the train and tram to the airport, but we need to go further. The reality is that the residents of West Lothian and Fife, who don’t pay council tax in Edinburgh but who commute there every weekday morning and who are vital to the city’s economy, contribute significantly to the pollution that afflicts the western part of the city. How can we collaborate with those councils to improve the provision of public transport for people beyond Edinburgh?
There’s nothing like the sort of bold action we need on the table, with the exception of the proposal to extend the trams to Newhaven. But trams – which don’t benefit as many communities as they should – are only one piece of the transport puzzle. And any decision on their extension should be taken directly at next year’s council elections.
We need a plan that tackles transport policy from all angles, including a city cycle hire service like those in many European cities, protected cycle lanes, support for bus routes to more isolated areas like Kirkliston, and one that fosters greater co-operation with neighbouring councils to reduce car usage.
A plan which is bold enough to make a leap of faith and imagine what Edinburgh might look like in ten years, which evokes a sense of the low-carbon city we’d be proud to live in. And yes, a plan that wouldn’t leave potholes neglected for months, since a transport plan without buy-in from motorists isn’t much of a plan.
• Toni Giugliano is the SNP candidate for Edinburgh Western at the next Scottish Parliament elections