"Car-lite" streets, new route for the trams, a bus superhighway through the west of the city
How Edinburgh aims to deliver a transport revolution
In Ghent, in the end, they did it virtually overnight.
As the compact university city woke from its slumbers on the Easter Saturday, a council team were already at work in its cobbled Medieval streets. By the end of the weekend, around 2,500 new road signs were in place, changing the traffic flow on more than 80 streets and doubling the size of its car-free zone.
This week an official from Belgium’s third city will visit Edinburgh to tell city councillors about how they delivered their “big bang”.
Two years after it took the radical step, in 2017, an official study found the air was cleaner, public transport use was up and some types of businesses benefitted too. There were more hotels and restaurants opening and fewer going bust, but many speciality shops struggled as the flow of out of town customers dried up due to the assumption that Ghent was hard to drive into.
Edinburgh is about to embark on its own version of the Belgian transport revolution, as it unveils plans designed to help cut car journeys in the Capital by 30% within six years.
The Big Bang approach - although it should be noted Ghent spent more than two years preparing - is optional.
Something has got to give
With Edinburgh’s growing population now above 500,000, and estimated to hit nearly 600,000 within 20 years, doing nothing about the increasingly gummed up roads is not an option.
The city’s answer is a “place making” approach that attempts to look at each part of the city in turn, the various roles each can play and how they interact with one another.
The result is an overarching plan that includes a radical rethink of how traffic uses the city centre, creating a large “car-lite” zone that forces motor vehicles which want to simply drive through the city centre to go round it instead. Other major parts include a £2bn north-south tram line linking the city’s hospitals and universities and the creation of a superhighway to fast-track buses - and bikes - through the congested west of the city.
As always, much will depend on the funds made available by the Scottish Government - and, ultimately, Westminster through the Barnett funding formula - but the message from the City Chambers is that change is coming, the only question is how far and fast.
Here are the main changes proposed.
A ‘car-lite’ Old Town
The historic heart of the city would be transformed into a huge pedestrian priority zone stretching from Lauriston Place and Lothian Road to Holyrood Park. Cars would be taken off the Bridges which would instead carry trams - as part of the preferred route for the proposed new line - with wider pavements and segregated cycle space. Pedestrians and cyclists would similarly get priority on the Cowgate and Canongate, with motor vehicles restricted to access only and through-traffic banned. This would spell the end of the potentially dangerous crushes which sees pedestrians spill onto the road on the Bridges and the Cowgate during the peak tourist season.
Edinburgh intends to take the first step within months by closing the Cowgate, and adjoining streets, such as Niddrie Street and Blair Street, to through traffic by the summer. The move would be experimental, but if it is judged a success it will never reopen. A closure on Calton Road at Leith Street would stop through traffic while maintaining access to the rear of Waverley Station and New Street car park from Abbeyhill.
Crucially, the Cowgate and the Bridges would be blocked to cars and lorries looking for the quickest route across the city, with traffic instead forced onto the already traffic-clogged Queen Street and Lothian Road, as well as the Meadows, the Southside, Abbeyhill and the short section of Holyrood Park linking Holyrood Road to Horse Wynd past the front of Holyrood Palace.
George Street and the New Town
The pedestrian priority zone in the Old Town would connect with similar measures already planned for the New Town. The Mound is due to become largely car-free and work is scheduled to start next year on the £36m pedestrianisation of George Street including the creation of a segregated cycle highway. There taxis and deliveries to shops would be limited to evenings and mornings with the restrictions enforced by automatic bollards. The work is expected to take three years and see 240 parking spaces removed from New Town streets.
Despite becoming the main north-south route for motor traffic through the city centre, the amount of space dedicated to cars and lorries is set to be reduced, especially south of the West Approach Road. More segregated space for buses and bikes is env