The news went more or less unnoticed last November. I heard it with some surprise but it sounded thoroughly good news to me. Edinburgh was preparing for a bold step towards becoming a modern city centre, a European city with a little more room for people and a little less room for cars. Since the Living Streets conference did not attract mainstream media attention, Lesley Hinds’ announcement to a crowded room did not make it into the press. Given The Herald’s gloomy interpretation of a bright idea, it’s probably just as well.
Back at the November conference (Walking and the Urban Environment), Councillor Hinds, Convener of Edinburgh’s Transport, Infrastructure and Environment Committee, conjured up images of New York’s enlightened public spaces as she celebrated the success of Edinburgh’s tentative experiment during the Festival, and promised a longer trial. Maybe you remember it? George Street was partially closed to give space for the Spiegel Tent. A positively Mediterranean sun shone on the spread of pavement cafes which came out to take advantage of the crowds.
Now, Edinburgh City Council is planning to roll out the scheme for a year’s trial, starting on Monday 17 March. Essential Edinburgh, the company managing the city centre Business Improvement District, is delighted. But what does The Herald’s Brian Donnelly say?
Now Edinburgh residents are bracing themselves for a year-long lockdown in one of the city’s busiest streets, which it is feared will create more traffic misery.
Under a so-called “cafe society” trial, George Street, parallel to Princes Street, is to be closed on one side to create a pedestrian area and a two-way cycle lane with traffic confined to the south side and running one way.
Traffic misery, lockdown, residents braced! Why the long face, Brian? At the end of the Festival, Edinburgh’s Evening News (not known for looking on the bright side) reported the trial had been a resounding success with the number of people visiting George Street up by a third.
That’s a significant number. The city’s retailers have always been reluctant to give priority to pedestrians. “Trades bodies are very resistant to evidence,” says urbanist John Dales, “But all the evidence shows that walking is good for business.”
Time will tell if Edinburgh is ready to become a modern European city. I certainly hope so, the most vibrant city centres offer welcoming space for people to move and meander freely (The Herald’s Glasgow is one of them). But there is another statistic which might suggest the shape of things to come. In the last few years the number of young drivers has dropped sharply. The cost of learning to drive and insuring a car is proving to be a more effective deterrent than pollution, congestion or climate change. Of course the recession won’t go on for ever, but young people are now well used to getting around town without a car. Urban planners might just be drawing up designs for living streets. The future is mobile.