D-Day for cycleway in Edinburgh amidst anger and division

Organiser Henry Whaley and Green MSP Alison Johnstone. Picture; Greg Macvean

Organiser Henry Whaley and Green MSP Alison Johnstone. Picture; Greg Macvean

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IT’s the most ambitious cycling project ever to hit Edinburgh. Today marks D-Day for the council’s proposed cycle “superhighway” stretching from Leith Walk in the east to Roseburn in the west.

The 2.5-mile route is the longest ever to be planned for the Capital’s streets, and would transform cycling in the city.

Cyclists in support of a cycle path are met by protestors who are against the cycle path. Picture; Greg Macvean

Cyclists in support of a cycle path are met by protestors who are against the cycle path. Picture; Greg Macvean

But its journey to the committee room, where it will be debated today, has been fraught with controversy.

In particular, a 100-metre section through Roseburn Terrace has caused mass protests from residents, who think the 
narrowing of the road and reduction in parking could kill off local shops and create a dangerous bottleneck.

Yesterday, the Evening News joined around 200 residents and campaigners as they set off from Charlotte Square to cycle part of the route down to Roseburn to show their support for the scheme.

Joined by MSPs and councillors, they snaked their way through morning rush-hour traffic and fumes – only to be met by a counter-demonstration of around 30 shopkeepers and Roseburn locals holding anti-cycle lane placards.

Jeers, boos and shouts erupted from the gathered throng as the cyclists passed by, but tensions soon settled as the two groups met to exchange arguments.

Cycling campaigner and resident Henry Whaley said the new cycle route was about “filling in the missing gap” in the city’s existing infrastructure.

He said: “You’re going to have a route that takes you from Roseburn, all the way through the city centre and George Street, and out to Leith Walk.

“From a cycling point of view, you’re now saying to people, ‘Look, here is an option’. And it’s an option that will be safe, that will be direct, and that will allow you to travel from one side of the city to another. Without it, you can say to people, ‘You should get on your bike, it’s healthy’, and all the rest of it – but how can people actually travel if there’s not a direct route?”

Like most of those who support the ambitious cycleway, Mr Whaley is against any attempts to scale back the plans.

Alternative proposals aimed at addressing the concerns of Roseburn protesters – dubbed Option B – show cyclists diverted away from Roseburn Terrace via Roseburn Place and Roseburn Street.

But cycling campaigners argue this is a flawed compromise. They say the original blueprints present a safer, more direct route – encouraging more people to get on their bikes.

Mr Whaley said: “People commuting or anything else – they just want to get from A to B. If you have a route that goes round and round the houses, then that’s not going to be 
enticing to you, and you’re going to think, ‘You know what? I’ll just get in the car’.

“We’re not trying to force anyone out of their car. It’s about saying to people there’s a time and a place for cars, and actually, getting into town during the rush hour is not one of the times when you should be 
looking to take your car. What we’re saying is, give us a bit of space. Give us a route that is going to enable us to travel in and out of the city. People would much rather have a bicycle next to them than have a car going past, or a big lorry.

“The scheme is also about widening pavements. It’s about making ‘places’ – making some improvements to Melville Street, making some improvements to George Street – and linking all these things up so people actually think they’ve got a choice.

“There have been studies that show shopkeepers over-estimate how many people come by car.”

If the council picks Option B in an attempt to appease Roseburn protesters, Mr Whaley thinks it could prove to be a “white elephant” that discourages future investment in cycling.

On the other side of the debate, Roseburn local Peter Gregson has led the campaign against the east-west cycleway.

He insists that half of the shops along Roseburn Terrace will be forced to close if the plans get given the go-ahead. Many of the traders share his prediction.

He added: “You cannot survive if the customers can’t get in, and if you can’t get produce in. Outside peak times, parking and loading allow the shops to function.

“The shopkeepers know how intrinsically important it is that a lorry can stop outside their shop and bring in crates of food, produce, heavy goods, wardrobes, TVs – and that people can stop in their cars and collect and take out heavy goods.

“There’s no parking in the side streets. Because you take away all the parking, the shoppers won’t stop – so they just go somewhere else. The only businesses that will flourish under this new regime are the odd coffee shop, or something that doesn’t need parking. [This is] to do with not wanting to make congestion worse.

“This is the A8. This is one of the busiest streets in town. This is an arterial route. I don’t think they’ve really studied the impacts. You’ve got four lanes here, this would reduce that to two. You’ve got 600 cars an hour. They’ve got nowhere to go.

“And it’s the same thing at Haymarket. Haymarket is incredibly busy. It isn’t going to allow the area to function effectively, and it’ll create more congestion.”

When asked about Roseburn protesters jeering cyclists, he admitted emotions were running high. “The problem is people are very angry and upset at the way cyclists have addressed this. They don’t seem to want to engage.

“That was an expression of frustration, because we were hoping people would stop. And they were ringing their bells. There was a concerted plan to ring bells as a sign of ‘We don’t give a toss’.

“They were asserting their rights to this bit of tarmac in this part of town. Most of them don’t come from around here. That’s why we’re here today – because we want to explain to them why it’s a bad scheme.”

Whatever the arguments, if the council’s £6 million cycle lane gets rubber-stamped today, it will be a landmark moment for the Capital.

There is currently only around 210 metres of protected cycleway across the whole of Edinburgh. The longest continuous stretch is 140 metres on St Leonard’s Street.

In contrast, miles of protected cycleways stretch across cities such as London, Bristol, Copenhagen and Amsterdam.

Green transport spokesman Nigel Bagshaw announced he will be backing Option A.

He said: “It’s time for the Capital to step up to the mark and be ambitious about encouraging more people on to bikes, reducing congestion, and pollution and improving health. Anything less than Option A is a fudge.”