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Traffic-free Edinburgh? Only if we follow the Dutch

Terry MurdenEver since they voted against a congestion charge some years ago motorists in Edinburgh have believed the city council has been against them.

There will therefore be some concern, even dismay, at the latest moves to rid the city centre of traffic.

On the other side there are those for whom only a total ban on motorised transport will suffice in tackling air pollution and making the city a better place to visit.

Somewhere between these two viewpoints a compromise needs to be reached, and hopefully the Open Streets programme will be managed in such a way that it improves the quality of life for all concerned without city centre companies and customers taking their business elsewhere.

The initial plan is to bar traffic on the first Sunday of each month between 10am and 5pm to let the public and council see how it works.

No decision has been taken on which roads will be closed during the pilot, but it doesn’t take a genius to work out that it’s likely to see George Street, some surrounding streets, and maybe even a stretch of Princes Street – probably from the junction with the Mound to Lothian Road – closed off.

There are good arguments for closing the Mound entirely along with George IV Bridge to the National Museum, Chambers Street, Cockburn Street and Victoria Street. Closing the lower half of the Royal Mile is also long overdue.

A big fear in all this is that it will lack the required joined up thinking that would bring a properly desired outcome. Take Leith Street, which has just been resurfaced and reopened to traffic after being shut for the best part of a year for the St James development work. The fact that the city continued barely unhindered while it was closed suggests it is an opportunity lost to pedestrianise a street so close to the city’s new flagship shopping and leisure district.

The car ban will be accompanied by more appeals for commuters and residents to choose public transport, cycling and walking which is fine if it’s possible, cost-effective and safe. Of course, a greater use of public transport would require more buses and trams, which must be accommodated somewhere (idea: build another bus station in the west to take buses connecting with Glasgow, Stirling, Perth and Fife).

St Andrew Square street clutter

Edinburgh’s streets are cluttered with confusing and unnecessary signage. Where is the cycle lane indicated by the blue sign? (pic: Terry Murden)


There are arguably too many buses already, contributing to the noise and air pollution, but they also provide an excellent cross-city service. If they are banished from key streets where are they to go? Would it mean Queen Street and Lothian Road being turned into bus stations?

A car-free city must still allow some access for deliveries and short-term business visitors, but because of Edinburgh’s protected status it could not replicate the solution in some cities by building a ring of multi-storey car parks within walking distance of the core area. On-street parking therefore becomes a must. If there are fewer streets to park on would it lead to more congestion or higher parking fees, or both?

The application of traffic management does leave something to be desired. Take St Andrew Square where the tram side of the street alone has about 70 signs and push button pedestrian controls, most of them rarely used because there is so little traffic. Apart from being pointless and hideous additions to the streetscape it is a waste of public money.

New paving has been introduced in some areas such as Leith Walk which is too wide and unnecessary. No wonder cyclists abandon the cycle lanes that are allowed to be blocked by parked cars and instead use the pavements.

The Netherlands is the expert in all this. It has an advantage in having no hills, but let’s not quibble over topography. In Amsterdam there are clearly segregated lanes for each mode of transport. It works. In our cities, whether Edinburgh, Glasgow or London, pedestrians, cyclists and motorists compete for the same space. It is confusing, inefficient and dangerous. No cyclist should be allowed to share a major road artery with cars, lorries and buses travelling at speed.

Amsterdam cycle lane

Amsterdam has designated safe cycle lanes (pic: Terry Murden)


So banning traffic will create a quieter, cleaner city, and would also be visually improved by ridding it of all the junk in the streets. It is noticeable how a pedestrian precinct, stripped of railings, pedestrian crossings and other paraphernalia is a much more pleasant environment.

But a city must also be allowed to function. With retailers struggling for customers they need to draw people into the city, not see them flee to out of town retail parks. Other businesses must not feel that a lack of access puts them at a disadvantage.

So a compromise will be needed, and evidence from some British towns and cities shows that Edinburgh and Glasgow are behind the curve. Dundee has a part-pedestrianised centre and there are others which have adopted the car-free option to compete with bigger neighbouring towns and shopping malls.

It can be made to work and so it should. Let’s not waste too much time dithering and consulting. Let’s just do it. But let’s do it right.


2 Comments to Traffic-free Edinburgh? Only if we follow the Dutch

  1. Your opening para “Ever since they voted against a congestion charge some years ago motorists in Edinburgh have believed the city council has been against them” is totally correct. There was no discussion on the options provided and no sensible options offered by the then Labour Council. Residents were offered two evils, and the council took the hump because they got the reply they did not want at all. Since then, they have taken the route “a curse on motorists” by withdrawing parking space and escalating parking costs. There has been no investment in separating pedestrians from cycle ways from vehicles, as in other places. Instead, we got a hugely expensive tram [part] line, with no concurrent reduction in polluting buses covering the same route.
    Your para “On the other side there are those for whom only a total ban on motorised transport will suffice in tackling air pollution and making the city a better place to visit” illustrates your dislike of motorised transport by linking in the same sentence a fact [tackling air pollution] with an opinion [making the city a better place to live]. There have been numerous suggestions on tackling air pollution but none taken up. There is no widespread installed electric vehicle charging, either nationally or city wide. Suggestions to have fleet owners [Lothian Buses] to have Electric or Hydrogen [or dual Electric/Hydrogen] have been totally ignored. Instead, we get diesel engined buses termed “Low pollution” merely because they have a battery/brake recharge system. Not an effective solution. Suggestions to improve the service through use of pre-pay or Oyster type cards across all public transport have been ignored, as have suggestions for two door vehicles thus reducing ‘stoppage time’ at bus stops. Bus Stops are still located with the prime intention to stop other vehicles. Such disregard of valid suggestions lends no credibility to the council’s stated intention “to improve the City of Edinburgh”.

    • To clarify a point made by Mr White, I did not intend to express any “dislike of motorised transport”…the sentence refers to the opinions of those supporting a ban, who believe it will make the city a better place to visit.

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