City v car clash must be driven by clear vision – John McLellan

The council's transformation paper reimagines Lothian Road as a tree-lined avenue
The council's transformation paper reimagines Lothian Road as a tree-lined avenue
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The warning could not be clearer: “It is impossible to spend any time on the study of the future of traffic in towns without at once being appalled by the magnitude of the emergency that is coming upon us. We are nourishing at immense cost a monster of great potential destructiveness. To refuse to accept the challenge it presents would be an act of defeatism.”

This was not last week, but 1963 when there were an estimated 11.7m vehicles on British roads, compared to the 37.7m vehicles registered in the UK at the end of 2017. The omen came from the steering group behind a study titled Traffic in Towns written by transport expert Colin Buchanan which also predicted 40m vehicles by the end of the century. His forecast was based on a UK population explosion of 20m from 56.3m, so although 20 years and 10m people out (UK population is now about 66.2m), his predicted ratio of about one vehicle for every two persons (1.9 to be exact) wasn’t so far out from where we are now, with one vehicle to 1.7.

The infamous 1949 Abercrombie vision of a double-decker motorway through Princes Street having been dumped, in 1972 Buchanan was commissioned to produce a plan to deal with Edinburgh’s growing traffic problems and what he proposed had some similarities to the aims of the City Centre Transformation paper unveiled by the city council this week, recognising that car use in the city centre needed to be limited and proposing bans on Princes Street, the Bridges and Lothian Road.

Some of his ideas, like Princes Street, have been implemented, but most of them went the same way as Abercrombie, his plan for four-lane carriageways forming an inner-ring-road cutting through the back of the Old and New Towns being dumped primarily because thousands of people very quickly realised the scheme involved the demolition of their homes.

But the biggest difference between the Abercrombie and Buchanan approaches to the latest vision for the city centre is they accepted the inevitability of car use and attempted to manage it. In 1963, Buchanan wrote that heavy urban traffic led to “damage to the environment for living which is manifested in danger, anxiety, noise, pollution, vibration and visual intrusion on an extensive scale”.

He recognised the attraction of the door-to-door convenience of a private car, but in identifying the clash his answer was essentially different kinds of roads around the streets chosen to be preserved. That kind of argument was accepted in Glasgow and gave the City the M8; while George Square and the historic grid was preserved, Charing Cross and Cowcaddens were destroyed. The new approach is to tackle that clash head-on and get to a point where it simply becomes impractical, unattractive, expensive and indeed unfashionable to use your own vehicle to come into town, while at the same time making the alternatives more attractive and convenient. Some would argue we are already there, and given I avoid using the car whenever possible I tend to agree.

The transformation paper is so wide-ranging it has something for everyone to love and loathe, but being at a very early conceptual stage there is no clear idea of wider impact or cost. The simple but effective 2008 Grassmarket upgrade came in at £6m, so who knows what the bill for turning Lothian Road into a tree-lined avenue will be, attractive though the principle undoubtedly is.

Sir Colin Buchanan, as he became in 1973, lived to the ripe old age of 94 and died in 2001 so he was able to see cars removed from Princes Street in 1996. What would he have made of over £200m going on three miles of tram in Leith when this week’s paper shows the scale of the task across the whole city is pretty much as he left it.

Cool for cats

A perfect illustration of how much the approach to city centre traffic management has changed is the widely publicised images from the new City Centre transformation paper of the Cowgate, with what looks like 1950s-style hep-cat beatniks lounging about outside St Cecilia’s Hall strumming guitars.

Some ugly developments, such as that which replaced the Green Tree, mean it will take a lot more than a car ban to turn the Cowgate into Edinburgh’s Left Bank and in 1972, Sir Colin Buchanan envisaged a four-lane dual carriageway down this way to take traffic away from the High Street. No so cool nowadays, daddio.