Brian Monteith: Daft 20mph speed limit will drive me to Glasgow

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Last week I admitted I had put on weight over the festivities. Carrying on with my theme of showing humility and offering penance (it’s the new me!) I wish to admit I have a bike but I don’t use it in Edinburgh.

It’s a good bike, a mountain bike just ideal for climbing Dunedin’s many hills. It has more gears than Hearts have goalscorers and its saddle is amply padded for my demanding posterior. Frankly, though, I believe I would have to be mad to cycle in Edinburgh, although I know many people that do. The reason for this is our roads. They are not so much an utter disgrace as they are sub-Third World.

I travel and work abroad a lot, it’s just how I earn my crust, but I can tell you the roads in Islamabad, Port of Spain, Gaborone, Tunis, Abuja – and even Lagos – to name but a few, are far better than what I have been confronted with in Edinburgh.

We all know the problem – years, in fact decades, of neglect by our city council. Public money to employ youthful advisers for innocent mothers on the advantages of using towelling nappies, or literature (in five languages) of the benefits of eating pulses – no problem, how much do you need? But taxpayers’ money for repairing the roads, not just patching the potholes but digging out the fault and fixing them properly? You must be joking.

And that’s not to mention the inconvenience of the trams. At one point Edinburgh seemed to have more trenches than the Somme. No sooner had a road been relaid than it was being dug up again. And many of those roads won’t even see a tram!

So when the council’s latest transport convener, Councillor Lesley Hinds, ordained to tell us recently that our fine city will be the first to be a 20mph zone I reached for the ibuprofen. Does Lesley ever drive in the city? Does she ever cycle? Has she ever had to repair a flat in the driving rain or had her front wheel nicked? Maybe her council expenses will tell us how she gets about.

In my previous life as a politician I was a keen supporter of 20mph zones and one of the first to advocate them. They are a great idea for residential areas that can be easily identified because they have no arterial roads, no trunk roads, no main roads and no regular traffic, like buses. In other words much of Edinburgh’s bungalow-land, council schemes, private estates and secluded cul-de-sacs. They are also good things to have outside school entrances, naturally.

But these are zones – not a whole city. They cannot and will not work in built-up residential streets with tenements that are also shopping thoroughfares and busy commuter routes no matter how many pedestrians use the pavement. The city centre is a different beast. It lives on traffic, it needs people getting about and the future of city travel remains the car. It might be an electric or hybrid vehicle – but it will still have four wheels, doors, bumpers, a roof to keep you dry and a boot for the shopping.

The idea that Edinburgh can be made a cyclists’ paradise by reducing the speed limit for everyone is to misunderstand that many, if not most, cyclists also have cars. We all need to get about and the way to make cycling more attractive is to repair those potholes – for let me assure Lesley Hinds they are far, far more dangerous for a cyclist than they are for car drivers or passengers.

The very sad fact is that cyclists are killed on Edinburgh’s roads because they are thrown into oncoming traffic or trapped before a vehicle because of the council’s negligence.

The councillors in Livingston and Glasgow must be laughing themselves stupid. There, residents can get in their car, drive at 40mph on dual carriageways and motorways, park in a multi-storey and do their shopping with ease. If you want to cycle, the roads are often wider and more accommodating.

In ancient Edinburgh with its old narrow streets (cycling in the Cowgate?) and once-wide boulevards now made narrow by past councils (Leith Walk anyone?) the traffic already runs slowly. Overtaking is almost impossible. And then there’s our cobbles. Edinburgh’s economy hates the car. It is successful despite itself.

Lesley Hinds says speed bumps will cost a fortune so will be avoided, but the rash of new street signs telling us of the speed limits and the countless CCTV cameras required to police us will also cost a fortune, a fortune that could repair our roads.

The uniform 20mph policy is not about helping cyclists or about preventing accidents – it is just more political grandstanding by councillors looking for the latest slogan and a theme to talk about at the next international conference. It’s also a cunning plan to make the 42mph trams more attractive than cars (they need all the help they can get).

I never thought I’d say this, but living in Glasgow, with its underground, suburban railway and dual carriageways is becoming more attractive – thanks to the likes of Lesley Hinds.