THE car-free Festival zone on George Street has been declared a resounding success – paving the way for new pedestrian-friendly projects in the city centre.
The number of people visiting George Street leapt by a third compared to last August and also halved the amount of traffic.
The George Street shake-up – that saw cafes replace vehicles along large stretches of the road – now looks set to continue for at least the next three festivals.
City leaders also believe their controversial bid for a one-way loop in the centre has been vindicated by George Street’s success as a “people space”.
The pedestrian-friendly master-plan would see buses and public transport run along the north side of George Street and westbound on carriageways on Princes Street – to allow pavements to be extended for pedestrians.
Planning shackles would also be lifted from Princes Street with a night-time economy of bars and restaurants expected to emerge in a new pedestrianised environment.
It is thought a one-year pilot would be launched when the trams finally hit the Capital’s streets next year.
Environment convener Lesley Hinds said the George Street trial had inspired confidence to expand pedestrian spaces throughout the city centre.
She has been inspired by figures, released by Essential Edinburgh, which represents 600 traders, which show the sophisticated George Street Festival – dubbed the “antidote” to the Royal Mile frenzy – has provided a boon across the city.
Shopping areas outwith George Street saw footfall rise by up to 21 per cent compared with last year, while the hub experienced a 30 per cent jump.
Councillor Hinds said: “Most people I have spoken to have said how fantastic George Street was this festival. The weather helped but it had a really nice feel to it with the Book Festival at one end, St Andrew Square at the other and entertainment throughout.
“An increase of 30 per cent footfall is massive and shows when the council works with businesses and the community, we can deliver together.”
She added: “Pedestrianisation seems to have worked and at the moment I feel reasonably pleased that it appears to have worked but I will wait until we get all the reports back.”
A bid to introduce a sweeping city centre traffic shake-up has been put on ice until October, as the city seeks to allay traders’ concerns over parking provision and introducing bus routes through George Street.
One of the concept’s greatest supporters is Essential Edinburgh, which devised a similar proposal in February and saw its plans tweaked by the city following public consultations.
Chief executive Andy Neal said the George Street experiment had “gone better than expected” and backed plans to test it further.
He said: “The figures speak for themselves. We have seen the BID [Business Improvement District] area show big increases through the five footfall counters that provide a direct comparison with the figures for the previous year. The BID area has not only seen a big increase, but it has outperformed the rest of the city centre by some distance, showing conclusively that the project has been a terrific success.
“Essential Edinburgh is strongly in favour of the partial pedestrianised model that has been running over the festival. I’d like to see it extended throughout the summer months or even for a year to allow it to be fully assessed. However, it’s very important that parking spaces and access on George Street would be maintained which was achieved in the model used during the Festival.”
Billy Lowe, a hotelier and restaurateur in George Street, hailed the success of the trial and said he hoped it was a springboard for greater things.
He said: “There has been lots of positive feedback about the George Street decking and continental-style alfresco dining that was offered and the area as a whole has certainly benefitted as a result.
“The decking and entertainment in St Andrew Square and along George Street has undoubtedly proved to be a huge success in establishing the George Street area as a significant destination for visitors to the Edinburgh Fringe. We look forward to building on the success of this year and making August even better for everyone in 2014.”
Josh Miller, chairman of the George Street Association, was reluctant to draw conclusions from the Festival arrangements until a impact assessment has been carried out on hospitality and retail. He said: “There was a very different atmosphere in the block between Frederick and Hanover Streets which was completely closed and the other blocks where half the street was closed.
“We objected to the previous idea of having buses one-way on George Street and I’m not aware of anyone who liked that idea.
“Hopefully, this will demonstrate there are other possibilities for the area which should be investigated.”
Gordon Henderson, of the Federation of Small Businesses, agreed the Festival experiment had been a success.
He said: “Whenever I was in George Street those outside seating areas were packed. It gave a good impression to visitors to the city that they were able to sit out and enjoy the street.”
He said that did not mean George Street should be part-pedestrianised all year round.
“This has already been discussed and it was pretty clear the traders were not keen. It gets quite frustrating when the council consults and if it doesn’t get the desired response it tries to get what it wants by another route.
“They have done the consultation and they need to listen to what people said. People didn’t want to have buses going one way along Princes Street and the other way along George Street.
“A knee-jerk decision to make it permanent would be unwise.”
Business expert: ‘The system worked well’
A LEADING business expert hailed the boom created by banning traffic from half of George Street.
Graham Birse, of Edinburgh Napier University’s business school, said to introduce it permanently – or extend it – the city would have to appease concerned traders.
He said: “There’s no doubt the system which operated in George Street during the Festival worked well.
“It created a cafe society space where people could relax and enjoy the Festival. The local businesses, Festival-goers and residents all seemed to like it.
“If it were going to be introduced on a more widespread or permanent basis, businesses would want to be reassured the transport arrangements and the opportunities for visitors to park nearby and access the pedestrianised areas were in place. In other words, proceed with caution. So the exercise was worthwhile.
“Of course, you also have to take account of what it will be like on a raw February afternoon with a cold front passing through.”