John McLellan: Getting Edinburgh out of a jam

Traffic on the City Bypass at Hermiston Gait. Picture: Greg Macvean
Traffic on the City Bypass at Hermiston Gait. Picture: Greg Macvean
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Taxi drivers have a lot to answer for. Never mind Wikipedia, cabbies are the all-seeing, all-knowing guardians of common sense about, well, anything you care to name.

How many times have you heard a taxi driver saying “I’m sorry, I don’t know anything about that so I’ll defer to your superior knowledge.” Correct. Not often.

But how often do visitors start their conversation with a local by saying “The taxi driver was telling me on the way in that . . .” Correct. All the time.

So forget newspaper columnists; if you want real opinion formers, jump in the back of a cab.

While I might be guilty of some exaggeration, on one subject taxi drivers are definitely the experts and that is, of course, roads. So there will have been much resigned nodding of heads along the ranks at the latest TomTom Traffic Index, which put Edinburgh third in the UK congestion league behind London and Belfast.

London we know is crazy, despite its congestion charge, while Belfast is still dealing with the legacy of the Troubles in which nationalist districts became no-go zones for buses and gang-run taxis replaced public transport.

But it’s quite something for a city the size of Edinburgh to be regarded as more in a jam than conurbations such as Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds.

Cabbies will be the first to blame trams for some of Edinburgh’s current woes and at Haymarket it is beyond all question.

Dalry Road might as well be sealed off to all but buses for the amount of time it can take to cross the lines to Shandwick Place, often taking six or seven minutes for a couple of vehicles to get through even outside the rush hours. Elsewhere, the picture is less obvious. Trams cannot be blamed for the daily queues around Gogar, Hermiston Gait and Newbridge, Sheriffhall or Queensferry Road. Even the Lothian Road/Princes Street junction clears relatively quickly.

Ten years ago, congestion charging was supposed to be the answer, but by a resounding 3-1 majority the Edinburgh public threw out what was a fiendishly difficult scheme to understand. A subsequent Edinburgh 
University study into the failure pinned the blame squarely on its complexity but also on a lack of tangible benefits compared to the very real prospect of an impact on drivers’ pockets.

The first mistake was to have the referendum in the first place. Edinburgh’s four-wheeled turkeys were never going to vote for Christmas, but the referendum was seen as a means to defuse political dynamite in the run-up to the 2003 local elections.

The second mistake was the outer charging ring, which meant too many people could see themselves being stung for journeys that would make no difference to congestion. Living in Liberton at the time, it would have meant us coughing up for driving to Straiton and back for shopping.

The third mistake was to lose 
support of neighbouring councils, who felt the outer ring was designed to penalise their people while allowing Edinburgh motorists to drive freely as long as they didn’t cross the inner boundary.

For too many people, the whole plan was all stick and very little carrot. Now with the launch of the region’s City Deal proposal, at least the local authorities are speaking with one voice, although when it comes to deciding which infrastructure projects to support, the discussions might become more competitive.

It’s unlikely congestion charging will be part of the plans, certainly not from Labour-led councils watching 
general election votes vanish, but should it really be dismissed out of hand?

The City Deal prospectus points out that the region’s population is set to grow from 1.32 million to more than 1.5m by 2032, and without significant transport changes, an already dire situation is only going to get worse.

So what about congestion charging? Few major cities have it, but two that do are Stockholm and Milan.

The Swedish capital is home to some 900,000 people, with 2.2m in the surrounding area. Yet on the TomTom European traffic index, Stockholm lies 57th compared to Edinburgh’s 24th, with a delay of 23 minutes on a daily 30-minute commute against our 24 minutes.

Milan has 1.3m people in the city and five million in the conurbation – pretty much the same as the whole of Scotland – but lies in 59th place and also has the same 23 minute delay as Stockholm.

A minute here or there doesn’t amount to much, but the fact is both these cities dwarf Edinburgh, yet they still move people more efficiently. Is congestion charging part of the reason?

The tangible benefit the congestion income was supposed to bring was a tram line to the new Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, a district identified in the City Deal document as one of the priorities for development.

It seems laughable, knowing what we know now, but the original plan was to build the line from Princes Street down the Bridges to Little France for £154m, out of an expected £700m raised from the new charge over 20 years.

The £1bn fund which it is hoped will underpin the deal can’t all go on a tram line, but it will be used to fund or at least prime schemes that will generate more cash to finance really big-ticket projects. And by improving infrastructure, it should generate more wealth – a potential £10.5bn in extra tax income if the analysis is to be believed.

The very words congestion charge give our civic leaders a nervous tick, but the TomTom index and the population projections suggest it’s time to at least reopen the debate.

Celebrating a home run

EDINBURGH estate agents and solicitors will have had a spring in their step with sales in February showing a marked increase.

According to the latest City Economy Watch report, the total volume of sales was up ten per cent on February last year to 666 properties and the total value was up 26 per cent to £163 million, making an average sale price of £245,000.

That might indicate that this week’s replacement of stamp duty by the land and buildings transaction tax (LBTT), which promises savings for properties under £325,000, did little to stall the market. But given the new tax means higher payments for those buying more expensive homes, it could also indicate the rush to push through those sales before LBTT kicked in has inflated the total and the true impact won’t really be known until late spring.

Elsewhere, key indicators of local economic health, such as jobseeker’s allowance, business incorporations and foreign investment, are in a holding pattern, perhaps in anticipation of big changes following the general election, but it illustrates how fragile confidence in the recovery remains.

A fare deal – for now

Perish the thought that the latest fare hikes at Lothian Buses are to pay for the hefty pay-offs due to four top directors now in the process of leaving the company. Or for the cost of keeping them on while interim chief executive Jim MacFarlane doubles up. At least the basic £1.50 single fare stays and, while it does so, the £4 to be charged for a day ticket remains a reasonable deal when the cost of three singles keeps 50p ahead. But next time the single goes up, don’t be surprised if another 50p is added to the day price.

Taking a different line

BETTER transport lies at the heart of the wish-list in the City Deal bid and one of the suggestions is the construction of more stations along the Borders rail link.

How this will help the economy remains to be seen, given most of the line is a single track and even peak-time services will be limited to two an hour. Adding extra stations will only lengthen journey times and do little to turn it into a proper commuter link.

Maybe a better, although more costly, option would be to extend the principle of reopening old lines to the route to Peebles, where the track bed still exists. Connecting Penicuik and Roslin to central Edinburgh would encourage development beyond the City Bypass.

But as far as encouraging tourism is concerned, providing a fast rail link to Peebles has the potential to do more for the regional economy than the Borders’ link. With the outdoors centre at Glentress fast becoming one of Scotland’s most significant visitor attractions, it’s an idea that should not be dismissed lightly.

Surely there is more potential here than putting more stations on the Galashiels route or, perish the thought, extending the line to Carlisle.