Testing Edinburgh’s commitment

This perfect test-case for proper infrastructure is something to keep an eye on.

If the Netherlands had proper stone to build with, it would probably look a bit like Leith… but cycling there would be far less stressful.

Edinburgh, the UK’s only signatory of the Charter of Brussels and somewhere in my top 3 least worst cities for cycling in Britain, made headlines and won some praise a few months ago when, in response to local and national campaigns, lobbying, protest, and the work of a few good local politicians, it was announced that the city would devote at least 5% of its transport budget to cycling. But finding the money for cycling is only half of the struggle: even once you’ve secured it, there are people getting in the way of it happening.

Edinburgh’s cycling infrastructure has so far mostly consisted of a relatively extensive but typically disjointed network of shared-use rail trails and paths through parks, plus the usual variety of scattered crap facilities. It was supplemented this year with a “quality bike corridor” — a local take on the Superficial Cycleway, with subtle red tarmac on a secondary road instead of bright blue paint on a trunk road. But recently the hyperlocal Greener Leith has been reporting on what looks like one of Britain’s best hopes for a proper showcase of the quality that it is possible to achieve, and the numbers and diversity of people using bicycles that follows, by implementing Dutch design principles for cycling infrastructure.

Edinburgh really have no excuse at all for not getting Leith Walk right:

This is exactly the sort of road that needs cycle tracks: an ‘A’-road. Ignore all that nonsense about “well you can’t have cycle tracks everywhere, so there’s no point asking for them anywhere”. You don’t need cycle tracks everywhere. You need cycle tracks on ‘A’-roads, where the higher speeds, the larger vehicles, and the larger volumes of vehicles are big barrier to cycling. Especially so when it’s also a retail high street, a business district, and a high density residential neighbourhood, as this shop and tenement block lined street is.

It has to be rebuilt anyway. A few years ago it was ripped to shreds when preparing the ground for the new tramway that never came, and so for several years it has had a temporary layout with rubber kerbs and plastic street furniture and ever widening and deepening potholes as the authorities argued about whose fault it was that the tram project went horribly wrong. Now with the tram line terminated just short of reaching Leith Walk, the extension indefinitely mothballed, the council can get on with putting the street right. Last month £5.5m was allocated for a major overhaul of the street, so even if Edinburgh hadn’t committed to funding cycling, money shouldn’t matter when the job needs doing anyway.

Leith Walk in the rain
Leith Walk in the rain by stewartbremner, on Flickr

People want it. When asked what they wanted from their street — with a broad remit of design, services, policing, etc — the number one demand from locals was Dutch-style cycling infrastructure. And the council should not need to have great fear of opposition from the sort of outer suburban motorists passing through the inner city that politicians are traditionally keen to keep happy — for reasons that should be obvious from the map.

The route has already been surveyed by Dutch consultants Goudappel Coffeng, who reported on the vast amounts of space available for proper Dutch standard cycle tracks that there is on this street, with its acres of excess capacity, lane widths, turning lanes, stacking lanes, vehicle storage areas, and plain wasted space — and their assessment was made back when they were even expecting 8.0m of the street to have to be dedicated to a tramway which has now been shelved.

Leith Walk
Leith Walk by Chris_Malcolm, on Flickr

With council offices populated by old fashioned highways engineers following inadequate and inappropriate design manuals, excuses will no doubt be desperately sought for why providing properly for cycling on Leith Walk is really impossible, and that anyway the manual says that cyclists love sharing lanes with double deck buses really, and oh are you really sure but that would mean you would have to give way at every side road because it’s beyond our imagination to design a cycle track correctly at side roads. But there really are no excuses left here. The experts have already visited and pointed out how ludicrously easy it should be to get this one right.

We’re in the sad situation where properly designed and implemented infrastructure is so rare in Britain that things that should be boring little local technical matters become projects of national importance in our search for showcases and templates. And a situation where no high quality infrastructure has been achieved by a council without a lot of hand-holding by campaigners, quangos, and the few consultants who get it. So keep an eye on, and if needed lend a hand to, Greener Leith et al. Because Leith Walk should set an example and show off what can be done for cycling, but even if Edinburgh councillors are serious about doing it, it’s extremely unlikely that their officers know how to deliver their policy.

7 thoughts on “Testing Edinburgh’s commitment”

  1. Thanks for high lighting this Joe, we really do need to bring pressure to bear on the City of Edinburgh Council to get this right. Sadly the current Transport Convener, Lesley Hinds, seems to lack the commitment of her predecessor (and an obsession with free parking). She says she will “listen to listen to cyclists as well as local residents” but fails to understand that these can be the same people.

  2. Leith Walk could be le grande boulevard as a starting point for doing the same for George Street (and possibly Princes Street) the opportunity to create a continuous shared high street between Leith and Edinburgh. Not just for cyclists, but the traveller of even greater value to the shops that still populate this street for much of its length – pedestrians.

    Edinburgh has the base for success where so many otehr cities have destroyed it or failed completely – streets with small shops right next to where people live in high density housing – with low car ownership already a factor, and bolsterd by the first and largest car club coverage outside London. Leith Walk could really show Mary Portas how wrong she is about the need to link retail success with car parking (Edinburgh already does this but here is a real opportunity to do it really well) Leith Walk with its galumaufry of independent and interesting shops could knock spots off the bland experience of an out of town retail park.

    One caveat though – heading in both directions cycling – even for a less fit rider like me is faster than buses and downhill – ironically referred to as going up Leith Walk, it is easy to match the pace of motor traffic at its typical 30+ mph. The design of the cycling facility will have to take account of cycling as transport and not a gently pottering pace of the leisure route.

    1. I’m afraid I don’t agree with the idea that cyclists need to be able to travel at over 30mph in exclusive cycle lanes. This is not a good way to encourage people from social groups other then young, white males to cycle.

      If you want to travel at that speed in the middle of a city on a bike, you’ll have to use the roads and leave the cycle lanes (if they were ever to exist!) to those who don’t or can’t travel at that speed.

      1. You might find that segregated facilities become mandatory. It was attempted in the last version of the Highway Code but the CTC campaigned to have it removed.

        Some people in the Netherlands aren’t happy with the enforcement there for exactly the reason Dave mentions.

  3. The council have more or less confirmed that there won’t be any change to Leith Walk in cycling terms – had a reply to an earlier email from Jim Orr, the transport rep on cycling.

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