THE future shape of one of the Capital’s most prestigious streets is up for debate – and opinions are divided on the best way forward.
Proposals for the design, lay-out and traffic flows on George Street are still being finalised following a controversial year-long trial which involved a dedicated two-way cycle lane and a one-way system for general traffic, as well as marquees for al fresco dining.
The public are being invited to give their views at an open day in the Assembly Rooms on Friday.
Marion Williams, director of the Cockburn Association, who is on the steering group on the future of the street, said there had been a mixed reaction to the experimental layout and lessons had to be learned.
“Some businesses liked it and benefited from it, others didn’t,” she said.
“George Street is now the most important street in Edinburgh and needs to be treated with that in mind. Any proposals have to be thought through, funded and have the quality the street demands.”
Ms Williams said the experimental layout left pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles in frequent conflict. “When they make it more permanent, there is a lot needs to be done to divert traffic away before they get there.
“A lot of people complained about there not being any buses, so that’s an interesting one to try to resolve.”
But she said George Street could not be considered in isolation. “You can’t just take one street on its own – it’s part of a network. If they fail to recognise its place in the bigger picture, it won’t be right.”
She said the pedestrian had to be the “principal player” in the new design. Her own preference was for the road to be decluttered, with street furniture stripped out to leave a broad expanse.
She said the marquees outside restaurants had not worked as well as people had hoped. “The way they had one on this side, one on that side, different quality and different awnings completely upset the balance of the street.
“Cafe culture is great, but you don’t get it all year round. We have to accept we’re not in the Mediterranean and we’re not going to have eight months of the year when you can sit out in the sunshine.”
She also voiced fears about how changes were to be funded.
“The council is always saying it has no money and lots of people are going to be losing their jobs. Someone needs to stand up and say there is money to do this.”
Tony Kenmuir, a director of Central Taxis, was sceptical about the likely changes. He said: “The best thing would be if they stopped skiddling with it. You have to reach a point where there is an acceptance the city centre doesn’t function if traffic and public transport cannot move as freely as possible.
“There is a large section of people who don’t go to the higher-value shops if you can’t get a car near them. It has been working fine for decades – how about they just leave it alone?”
He said there were many empty offices in the city centre because businesses were put off by the lack of access.
“I had someone in the taxi the other day who was considering relocating to George Street and was going to look at premises, but he didn’t even bother getting out to look when he realised you couldn’t get a taxi near it.
“They say they want to extend the life of Princes Street and George Street into the evenings, but if you don’t have an office economy during the day there’s no-one there to go for lunch or a drink after work.
“It’s really key for office staff to have access to public transport and taxis during the day”.
But Dave du Feu of cycle group Spokes was more enthusiastic about the year-long trial.
“Overall there has been a pretty positive response to the experiment from both cyclists and the general public,” he said.
“One of the questions asked of cyclists using George Street is had they cycled more as a result of the cycle lane being there and 40 per cent said they had.”
He said there had been “niggles” with the experimental scheme. “At one point the cycle lane changed from one side of George Street to the other. That was definitely a problem, but overall people were very supportive.
“They’ve told us the final design is still being worked on, but we have had fairly strong indications it will include segregated cycle lanes on each side of the road.”
The experiment involved a two-way cycle lane on one side of the road, but Mr du Feu said one-way lanes on each side were “probably better”.
“It would make it easier at roundabouts, where you had to cross from one side of the road to the other. For confident cyclists, it was not a problem, but part of the purpose of these lanes is to encourage people who are more nervous or novices. The idea is they should be suitable for an unaccompanied 12-year-old.”
Gordon Henderson, of the Federation of Small Businesses, had serious reservations about repeating the changes made during the trial.
“Al fresco dining is a good idea – people want to do it and it looks good,” he said. “But those white plastic marquees looked appalling. In the middle of a World Heritage city having these marquees on little platforms made out of garden decking was embarrassing.”
And he said another change in traffic flows on George Street would just add to existing confusion for motorists.
“Lots of people say they never know which way the roads in the centre of Edinburgh go any more. Every time they come in there’s a new diversion or a new road closed. It’s very confusing for people.”
He said the development of the Edinburgh St James was going to mean major disruption next year and suggested George Street should be “left alone” at least until that was finished.
Proposals for George Street, taking into account public feedback, are expected to be presented to councillors in December.
City transport convener Lesley Hinds said: “During the time-limited year-long trial we worked closely with local residents, businesses, transport groups, heritage bodies and members of the public to test what worked and what did not. Put simply, we want George Street to reach its full potential. People’s views are important in helping us to do that.”
The open day at the Assembly Rooms, George Street, on Friday will run from 2pm- 7pm.