Edinburgh's George Street: Businesses call for 'complete rethink' on taxi ban as part of pedestrianisation
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Council plans to ban taxis from Edinburgh's George Street need "a complete rethink", a business leader told the city's transport committee.
Pedestrianisation proposals will see almost all motor vehicles excluded from the historic street between 10am and 7pm, though taxis will be allowed access outside those hours. But Roddy Smith, chief executive of Essential Edinburgh, which represents city-centre businesses, said the issue of taxi access was "absolutely key" and urged talks with taxi operators to find a "workable solution".
Mr Smith said he supported the principles behind the £36 million revamp of George Street. "All the city-centre businesses can see the long-term benefits of the redesign of the street to make it fit for purpose for the next generations." And he welcomed a relaxation of the rules to allow coaches to drop off hotel guests. But he said many guests for the George Hotel arrived by taxi during the restricted hours and the closest they would be allowed would be St Andrew Square or Hanover Street.
“I don’t think it's practical to have hotel guests being dropped off 80-100 yards from the front door and being expected to walk, especially if they've got lots of luggage or mobility issues. A solution must be found to allow hotel, restaurant and other users to always access the street. I understand that if there is too much vehicle access to the street it is going to compromise the principles of what we’re trying to do. But I think the street has to work for everyone that uses it and the businesses 365 days a year. I think we’ve made progress, I just don’t think we’re there yet.”
Transport convener Scott Arthur praised businesses for their constructive engagement with the project, but said it was now “starting to get real” and involved compromise and negotiation. And he said: "The more we relax the rules, the more of the value of what we’re trying to do is lost. Even allowing taxis in the evening, we think there'll be about one a minute coming in. During peak time we've got data that shows between 3,000 and 5,000 taxis coming to George Street in a day. If we allowed that level of access, while it may be good for some of your businesses, we would lose a lot of value we are trying to deliver for the street. Apart from anything else, I don't think it would be safe."
The committee also heard pleas from private hire operators – who are not allowed into the street at all under the pedestrianisation scheme – asking for the same access as black cabs. Kevin Woodburn from Capital Cars and Edinburgh City Private Hire said it was "ludicrous" that one sector of the trade was allowed in and the other not. “We're looking for fair and equal treatment. We have no objections to the overall plan. However we have to consider the economy, the night time economy and people being able to access the forms of transport they already use.”
In a written submission, Uber claimed restricting access to George Street for private hire cars while allowing access for Hackney cabs was ”anti-competitive and discriminatory”. And the Scottish Private Hire Association said: “Despite being a significant part of Edinburgh’s transport infrastructure, our sector receives inadequate consideration compared to the public hire side of the trade.”
Tories called for a “more flexible approach” on taxi access and for licensed private hire cabs to be given the same access rights as licensed taxis. But their amendment – which also opposed plans to add trees to George Street for the first time – was defeated, as was a Lib Dem call for a decision on the scheme to be delayed for more clarity on funding.
Lib Dem transport spokeswoman Sanne Dijkstra Downie said they supported the objectives of the project and wanted to see them implemented. But she asked: "Given the financial position we as a council are in, is this scheme actually affordable? And do we know for sure that we want to spend potentially £25m of council active travel money on this scheme and prioritise this over other spending? I’m uneasy about spending active travel funding, which is desperately needed across our city, in order to satisfy, in part, very costly heritage concerns, such as specific paving material.”
But the committee did agree to a call from Cllr Arthur for continued dialogue on taxi access during the restricted hours for people with disabilities.