'It's time to move on from the war between motorists and cyclists': Edinburgh's new transport convener wants to see changes
Edinburgh's transport debate has to move on from cars v bikes and make public transport and walking a much bigger part of the conversation, according to the city's new transport convener Scott Arthur.
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He also wants a change of tone, meaningful consultation and a bigger say for ward councillors on local schemes.
The transport brief includes many of the council's most controversial projects, from parking levies to tram extensions.
And Councillor Arthur has already taken decisive action, agreeing that a temporary bus lane which caused traffic chaos on the A8 should be removed following calls from airport bosses and others. “Nobody wants to rip out bus lanes, but this one was temporary and would have done more harm than good during the Highland Show,” he said.
He has described his appointment as "interim", pending an expected shake-up of committees in the autumn, but he has been getting briefed by officials and writing to transport spokespeople in other parties to seek co-operation.
And he has some new ideas, like a co-operative model for a new cycle hire scheme.
Cllr Arthur said there were no plans to backpedal on active travel but he wants a change of emphasis. "Over the last five years there has been a lot of bandwidth consumed about the war between cyclists and motorists and I'm keen we move on from that and talk more about walking and use of public transport. Edinburgh faces huge challenges. We want to increase the number of people cycling, walking and wheeling. But if we want to reduce the number of cars in the city, public transport is there to do the heavy lifting."
He said the council had an active travel capital investment programme with £100m worth of projects. "I have no intention of changing that. But we do want to change the narrative a little bit, to be much more about working with communities. There are a few consultations which have just gone live over very local active travel improvements in Leith and South Queensferry and other places. I've been double-checking that to ensure it's meaningful engagement and we can use these exercises as an opportunity to engage with the public."
Workplace Parking Levy
Cllr Arthur said: “If those three parties are keen on it they should bring forward a proposal that is workable for Edinburgh. A WPL does come with challenges: at the Gyle, employers were concerned about displacement parking – people not parking in their business car park any more but parking in the shopping centre car park; what about bus drivers driving the first bus of the day? If they bring forward a workable solution we could look at it but as it stands my party was very clearly against it. I don't think it's an easy thing to resolve.”
The SNP proposed a peak-period congestion charge at the city boundary to be paid by commuters driving into the city from other local authorities, but Cllr Arthur argues there is no mandate for such a scheme. He does, however, want to see a reduction in the 50,000 or 60,000 cars a day coming into the city pre-Covid from surrounding local authorities. “We need to look at public transport links – bus and train – and work with surrounding local authorities on a plan to develop them so people have a sustainable alternative to come into the city. Once these alternatives are in place, then a congestion charge would perhaps make sense. We want to start a dialogue with surrounding local authorities and work with them to resolve congestion in Edinburgh and find viable alternatives.”
Controlled Parking Zones
The roll-out of more parking zones where residents have to pay for permits was paused in some areas last year after local opposition.
Cllr Arthur said he had no plans to go back on what the committee had agreed. “I'm keen to change the way the council operates around some of these ward-level issues,” he continued. “I want to engage with ward councillors on these issues. If ward councillors agree a CPZ is desirable for the community I'm happy to take it forward.”
Cycle hire scheme
Cllr Arthur said: “With the previous scheme, we seemed to want one for the sake of having one and we didn’t know what to do with it. I want us to use it get people who are not currently cycling to think about cycling and bring it into their daily lives. That's about reaching people who are car-owners but also people in more deprived neighbourhoods. With both the cycle hire scheme and the cycle storage scheme, I’m really keen we think about the bigger picture and use them as a way of getting more people into cycling and make it more attractive to them.
“I'm also open to, rather than bringing in a big company like Serco, looking at co-operative models around cycle hire schemes, maybe a cycle hire scheme built on the network of independent bike shops we have in the city, something that supports small businesses and gets people cycling and maybe even gets them to buy a bike eventually.”
Cllr Arthur said he had concerns about council plans for bus routes to be redesigned so they were “to not through” the city centre. The idea was to have a ring of interchanges around the city centre and smaller “hopper” buses to transport people within the centre. But Cllr Arthur said the council had to “think very carefully” about such an approach. “I will speak to the bus companies about it, to make sure they’re happy with any changes that impact on their services going through the city centre. Good public transport is absolutely crucial to our future as a city.”
The drop in passenger numbers on buses and trams during Covid has hit the business case for the current tram extension to Newhaven, but there is still talk of new lines to other parts of the city. Cllr Arthur said: “There is uncertainty over how passenger numbers are going to recover on both the tram and Lothian Buses, but the tram company are reasonably optimistic.”
And he said he was “quite keen” to look at new lines. But he said: “We would have to seek external funding for any new line. The council could not afford to pay for it itself or from ticket income. We would need to have capital money up front from the Scottish Government to make it happen. So in the medium term we have to do some exploratory work and speak to the government to see if they're willing to support it. It's a nationally important project building a further tramline in Scotland's capital so I think it's only right the Sottish Government would help with that, but we don't want to waste money building a business case for a project that's ultimately going to be refused.”
The transport and environment committee had a heavy workload over the last five years – and some of the most heated exchanges. Cllr Arthur said: "We're quite keen as an administration to change the tone of debate on all the committees, but on the transport committee specifically, to be much more collaborative.
"We’re also keen to look at the balance of work between different committees.” Major strategic projects and big-picture issues could be handled by a strategic-level committee looking at the development and growth and success of the city as a whole, he suggested. And there could be a separate “bins and potholes” committee, which was “more about just getting stuff done”. This has not been decided yet, but any shake-up is expected to take place in the autumn.