Cliff Hague: Traffic plan a step towards a city that’s fit for walking

Al fresco dining during the Festival in the middle of George Street could become an all-year round sight if the thoroughfare is pedestrianised. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Al fresco dining during the Festival in the middle of George Street could become an all-year round sight if the thoroughfare is pedestrianised. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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More of the same is not an option when it comes to traffic in the centre of Edinburgh. We are much more aware now of the dangers of air ­pollution from vehicles – it can be a silent killer.

­Improvements have been made in vehicle technology, but the increase in the number of vehicles takes away some of the gains. I doubt any reader would disagree with the city council’s ­commitment to “improve Edinburgh’s air quality and reduce carbon emissions [and] explore the implementation of low emission zones”. To take no action puts us on a trajectory to worse air quality and increased carbon emissions.

Cliff Hague is chair of the Cockburn Association. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Cliff Hague is chair of the Cockburn Association. Picture: Ian Rutherford

The consultation on options for ­traffic in the city centre is therefore welcome. The idea of making our great city more pedestrian-friendly is appealing. Edinburgh has lagged behind most European capitals in this respect.

In 1962, Copenhagen made Strøget a pedestrian street – it links the city’s two main squares, think Saint Andrew Square and Charlotte Square. From that beginning an interlinked pedestrian zone grew. Today, when more tourists seek an “authentic” experience, and creative young professionals are a key demographic for business growth, making cities pedestrian and cycle friendly has become part of their branding.

READ MORE: Revealed: radical plan to pedestrianise key Edinburgh streets

In contrast, Edinburgh has struggled persistently with how to handle city centre traffic. In 1949, the super-star planner of his day, Sir Patrick Abercrombie, was sent packing after proposing an inner ring road. A similar fate befell urban motorway proposals in the 1960s, and the plans that followed from Sir Colin Buchanan: knighthoods are not enough to sway the affections of our citizens.

More recently, councillors thought that reducing city centre traffic seemed a good idea, and that congestion charging was the way to do it. Then they panicked and put the idea out to a referendum in 2005: the plan was ditched after 75 per cent of voters rejected it. There were also a few problems with plans for a tram system.

So can we get it right this time? Consultation is a good start, ­provided that it is about listening, not an exercise in marketing like the current consultation on West Princes Street Gardens. There also needs to be high-quality professional leadership informed by best practice elsewhere but sensitive to the local detail. ­Movement of people and goods in a city is complex, and is linked to important concerns such as safety, competitiveness, health and social inclusion. An integrated approach is needed, not just traffic engineering.

This contrasts with what has ­happened at Picardy Place, where ­traffic flow, rather than urban design, has been given top priority at a key gateway, speeding the flow of cars into the centre. If deterring vehicles from driving through the centre is the aim, the scheme for Picardy Place makes no sense.

Residents in the city centre make Edinburgh a vibrant place. Their needs have to be taken into account: the city’s track record on sensitivity to potential impacts on city centre residents and shopkeeper experiences is not the best.

Crucially, traffic displacement must be properly addressed. Corstorphine already suffers from poor air quality: a low emission zone in the centre but peak emissions in surrounding neighbourhoods is no solution.

A real rethink on traffic in the centre is overdue, and so the Cockburn Association welcomes this initiative by the council. Wider streets, a pedestrianised High Street (at last!), safer cycling and reduced emissions are all much to be desired. But the detail matters, not least to sustain the quality of the bus services into and through the city centre.

Cliff Hague is chair of the Cockburn Association.