PRINCES Street could become a traffic-free zone under radical proposals to ban cars, buses and taxis from the famous thoroughfare.
A petition lodged at City Chambers today urges transport chiefs to review a 2010 report by renowned architects Jan Gehl that championed pedestrianising the shopping district.
Submitted by cycling campaigners Spokes, the bid aims to “free Princes Street of all motor traffic” and create an environment “where pedestrians, cyclists and trams co-exist well”.
Spokes claims the move – supported by the Scottish Green Party – would make Edinburgh a “much more attractive tourist destination” and improve quality of life for residents while providing an economic fillip for retailers jaded by years of tramworks.
A total of 500 signatures are needed for the proposals to progress to committee.
But taxi chiefs have branded the controversial plans a “non-starter”, claiming the New Town lacks the necessary infrastructure to cope with the huge increase in diverted traffic.
Arising from the city centre shake-up, Spokes argues that: a cafe culture could develop, retail footfall would increase and breathtaking views of the Castle and Gardens would be “uninterrupted” by traffic.
Ian Maxwell of Spokes, which wrote the petition, said: “Princes Street is important for tourism and for the life of the city centre, as well as being a corridor for transport.
“When traffic was removed as a result of the tramworks, it became very noticeable the peace and quiet people were enjoying. Given Princes Street is such a unique setting – with the Gardens and Castle along one side – Edinburgh should really make the best of it. Removing cars has improved it, but with buses and taxis continuing to run there you don’t get the benefits you might. If you remove traffic, Princes Street would take the full benefit.
“Our suggestion is that Princes Street without motor traffic and just with trams would be a real asset to the city.”
Building on Jan Gehl’s blueprint from 2010 – which described Princes Street as a “big bus station” that failed to reach its potential – the petition concluded it was “a vision for Edinburgh but a reality in many European cities”.
Business chiefs gave the petition a cautious welcome.
Michael Apter, chair of the West End Association, said there was no reason Edinburgh could not emulate other European cities in cultivating more traffic-free zones in the centre. He said: “It’s an interesting proposal and I like the idea of Princes Street being a space that people can use, but it’s also got to be balanced against the needs of keeping the city moving and getting people in and out of the city in a practical manner.
“Mass transport is a key component of that. Edinburgh is a small city so there’s only a finite amount of road space. In Amsterdam, lots of different vehicles use the road space - from trams through to bicycles – and I don’t see any reason why Edinburgh can’t do the same.”
But Raymond Davidson, sectary of Edinburgh Taxi Association, poured cold water on the bid.
He said: “I think this will be non-starter. Albany Street and New Town residents are already complaining about the increased traffic due to tram diversions and the council will not be able to use that as an arterial route permanently.
“At the moment, residents are only putting up with it because of the trams and have been told the diversions are only temporary until the trams are finished.
“Not only that, but the roads there are just not equipped to deal with the demands of thousands of extra vehicles travelling along them. You can already see by the pot holes on diverted roads the problems that would be faced.”
However, the taxi chief said he supported segregated cycle lanes to ensure the safety of cyclists.
Amid claims city chiefs could face a compensation bill of up to £1 million from cyclists injured in falls on Edinburgh’s tram lines, Spokes’ petition also proposes that a less congested roadway would help “eliminate” accidents.
Cyclist Sara Reed, who was injured after her wheel became trapped in a tram track, said taking buses and taxis off Princes Street seemed the “most sensible option”.
“Now that trams are coming, a rethink of traffic on Princes Street to provide an improved, safer, city centre environment will benefit Edinburgh, its people, businesses and visitors in so many ways,” she said.
“I really hope the council sits up and takes notice of this petition as action is needed urgently to prevent more injuries – or worse. The ambulance paramedics who took me to hospital said they had scraped numerous cyclists off Princes Street in similar accidents.”
Alison Johnston, Lothian MSP for the Scottish Greens, said her party endorsed the “imaginative plans”, but questioned why Gehl’s pioneering report – which was commissioned by the council – had been kicked into the long grass.
“Princes Street is one of the most stunning streets in the world, with an incredible mixture of green space and stunning architecture. It is truly unique, but you can only imagine how magnificent it could be and I think we have missed an opportunity to maximise its potential.
“Removing traffic would mean cleaner air for cyclists, pedestrians and families. Even cafe culture could flourish there. Over the years you can see that the quality and range of shops has not improved. We need to start doing things differently and Princes Street is a fantastic asset, and to think it could be even better deserves serious consideration.”
And she added: “For some reason Gehl’s work was never consulted on. The council invested in the report and I’m not entirely sure why they didn’t consult on it. We are creatures of habit and change can be a difficult thing to get our heads around, but it’s worth exploring all the options.”
The Scottish Government has committed to ensuring ten per cent of all journeys will be completed on bike by 2020.
A council spokeswoman confirmed they had received a petition by Spokes. “If it is validated and receives the required amount of signatures, it will be considered at a future Petitions Committee,” she said.