Why Edinburgh’s Lord Provost shouldn’t be surprised motorists break the rules – Tom Wood

Rules that are seen as arbitrary and unfair will be disrespected and disobeyed where possible. A few weeks ago the Lord Provost of Edinburgh broke the usually dignified silence of his office to complain that motorists in Edinburgh were impeding public transport in the city by “Not adhering to the rules of the road” – more enforcement was required.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 4th March 2019, 1:48 pm
Updated Monday, 4th March 2019, 1:52 pm
St Johns Road is one of the worst roads in Scotland for traffic congestion. Picture: TSPL
St Johns Road is one of the worst roads in Scotland for traffic congestion. Picture: TSPL

Interestingly, his complaints were not about “joy-riders” or “boy racers” but ordinary folk trying to get to their work at a time and place that is usually not of their choosing. About the same time we learned that traffic speeds in Edinburgh are among the slowest in the UK , tying with central London at a desultory 7mph.

It should come as no surprise that motorists show contempt for some of the decades of rules and restrictions that have been heaped on Edinburgh road-users.

It was St Thomas Aquinas who is credited with first expressing the view that “An unjust law is no law at all”. In other words, rules that are perceived as arbitrary and unfair will be disrespected and disobeyed where possible. No enforcement short of a Soviet-style crackdown will change that. History is littered with examples from the draconian poaching laws of the 19th century to the drugs legislation of more recent times.

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In Edinburgh it really started in the 1990s when transport in the council was held in the thrall of faux academics who imposed on the city their theoretical management models which really only amounted to “control by congestion”. Motorists would be actively discouraged from driving into the city by a range of ­disincentives – lots of stick and no carrot, all notes of caution were dismissed in the puritanical drive for a car-lite Edinburgh.

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These plans eventually hit the buffers with the rejection of the proposed toll scheme and the notorious first phase of Edinburgh’s trams. The forensic mind of Lord Hardie has been dissecting this particular farrago and we await his report with anticipation.

Of the various “traffic management” schemes visited upon Edinburgh over the last 30 years, some have succeeded, many have failed but all remain. As new schemes were implemented they were simply overlaid on the old ones with no apparent consideration of cumulative effect.

The motorists so admonished by the Lord Provost see the detritus of these schemes every day. Drivers coming into the city through Sighthill have time, as they sit nose to tail in a single lane, to muse about the cost, benefit and environmental impact of the empty bus lane on their near side.

Motorists who have the temerity to try to drive through the New Town face a different scale of challenge: sealed-off junctions, road narrowings, one-way systems, speed bumps and traffic light phases that ensure stop-start progress. Add to that badly planned and poorly supervised roadworks, potholes and parking wardens with no concept of discretion and you have a joyless experience.

We are thankfully a long way from “yellow jacket” protests but we should hardly be surprised when some motorists try to cut corners. The Lord Provost is the first citizen of the city and as such should be the champion of the people. So as the idea of charging drivers for coming to work is mooted, let’s hope he remembers his role as people’s champion as well as the cautionary words of St Thomas Aquinas.

Tom Wood is a writer and former deputy chief constable of Lothian and Borders Police