Trams to Newhaven: Leith Walk business owners discuss effects of tramworks on footfall

Taking a wander down Leith Walk hasn’t been the same for a number of years.

Let us know what you think and join the conversation at the bottom of this article.

Endless road closures and ever-shrinking pavements have created an imprisoning feel, as people navigate through dusty and noisy, narrow spaces, reduced to viewing the opposite side of the street from behind construction railings.

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The Trams to Newhaven project has shaped Leith Walk’s ‘new normal’ - a cacophony of diggers and generators alongside a sea of high visibility vests deriving from the sprawling works.

A sign reads 'Leith Walk is open for business"

It’s now a little over a year when the first tram tracks were laid on “The Walk”, and passers-by can now see significant developments to the new line that is due to open in spring next year.

It goes without saying that a development of such magnitude will inevitably create disruption and irritation. And the extension, which adds just under three miles of track in both directions to the existing route, has been met with both scrutiny and optimism by locals.

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One view is that the ensuing transportation chaos has dissolved any attraction to visit the vibrant area to many Edinburgh residents, the other notion, that a new tramline will take the energetic street into the 21st century, ushering in tourists straight from the airport, allowing Leith Walk to regain its lifeblood.

For some business owners who were adversely affected by the tram works on one of Edinburgh’s longest and busiest streets, this has unfortunately meant the end of the line for trading.

Businesses have reacted to tramworks on Leith Walk

Others have managed to stay afloat via loyal customer bases and government support, but from speaking to Leith retailers, it’s a safe bet to say nearly everyone over the course of the last two years has, at one point, been driven off the rails.

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If you strike up conversation with business owners on Leith Walk a recurring theme becomes evident – a noticeable lack of footfall on the beloved street.

Rikki Abbot, who opened his music shop on Leith walk in 1982 said: ““I’ve been here for the last 40 years, and the last two years has been worse than when I started all those years ago. The footfall is zilch, disappeared. People do not come down Leith Walk.”

Pointing to the view outside his shop, he said: “There’s metal barriers up that look like the Berlin Wall and nobody knows how to cross from one side to the other.

Tramworks on Leith Walk
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“So we have this ‘Leith Wall’, what would you do? I know if it was me, I would think twice before coming down here.”

Mark Walker, who opened Edinburgh Collectibles one year into the project, has also experienced the same trend.

“The general rule of thumb seems to be at the moment is just to avoid the area. Footfall has been awful. You expect January and February to be quiet anyway but nothing is happening at all. If you check any of the social media platforms you’ll see that the area is being avoided,” he said.

Lucy Watters, who owns Weigh To Go, has also noticed the public’s current consensus of Leith Walk online.

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Harburn Hobbies is the longest-established model retailer in Scotland. Specialising in model railway sets, they also provide construction kits, gifts and jigsaws, and are based at 67 Elm Row.

“Anything that’s posted, there’s always something like, ‘I’ll never go down Leith walk, it’s a nightmare, I’m not going down there.’ The impression of the area has changed just now, and we’re always working on a negative,” she said.

“People aren’t coming down to Leith as much for day shopping. When they change the crossing points, footfall changes every time. Now that people drive up the other side of the road, I’m much quieter because of it.”

A few shops down the street and the echoing message becomes concrete, the crumbling deterioration of footfall mirroring the road being dug up in front of their business.

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“When the trams started, the bus stop went away, then people stopped coming in,” Hadas Monaco explained.

Hadas, who opened Maria’s Kakes in the same month that the tram extension was approved, added: “It’s been hard. I’ve got my regular customers but you can’t attract people from other areas because nobody really wants to come into this mess.”

Harburn Hobbies has been a destination shop on Leith Walk for model enthusiasts since 1978 and owner Bob Baird explains his shop has relied on online sales over the last two years:

“The regular people think twice before they come out. Quite a lot of our local customers get sent stuff by mail, even though they live only a mile or two away, it’s still easier for them to get it put in the post,” he said.

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“The online sales have increased a lot since the road works began so in a way, its offset the problem with the lack of footfall here.”

But not all businesses have felt the lack of footfall from the ongoing disruption.

Anne Neal, owner of Lovella Beauty & Gifts, said: “I've been quite lucky, the trams haven't really affected us that much.

“The worst thing for us is the dirt and the mess. We haven't struggled with customers and most of our clients live around this area so they just walk to us.

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With another year to go before we see diggers replaced by trams, the City of Edinburgh Council have produced £2.4m pot to help support businesses.

A council spokesperson said: “We continue to liaise with businesses on footfall in the area and, in discussions with them, have made changes to crossing points along Leith Walk to help pedestrians cross.”

Councillor Lesley Macinnes, transport and environment convener, said: “We recognise people’s concerns, and are arranging to meet businesses urgently to address these.

“We know the last two years have been extremely challenging for traders, and we will continue to liaise regularly with businesses.”

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