Flagship Edinburgh street could become traffic-free

Pedestrians on the traffic-free sections of George Street, Edinburgh. Picture: Jane BarlowPedestrians on the traffic-free sections of George Street, Edinburgh. Picture: Jane Barlow
Pedestrians on the traffic-free sections of George Street, Edinburgh. Picture: Jane Barlow
A RADICAL shake-up of one of Edinburgh’s flagship thoroughfares should be ordered to hand over much more space over to pedestrians, cyclists, al-fresco bars and restaurants and festival events, a city centre chief has urged.

Andy Neal, outgoing chief executive of Essential Edinburgh, has suggested making George Street traffic-free at certain times of the year or during the day in a bid to boost its fortunes.

Mr Neal said he believed there was “overwhelming” public support to make permanent moves to curb traffic levels, by reducing car parking spaces, having buses re-routed elsewhere and creating more outdoor seating areas.

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Mr Neal, who leaves his post this month, has warned it would be a backward step if the city council scrapped an ongoing experiment, which has seen some parts of the street closed to traffic since last summer and a one-way traffic system introduced. The 12-month pilot, which allows cyclists to travel both ways along the street, was approved following successful experiments during the Fringe.

Mr Neal said damage had been done to buildings and the road surface when buses were rerouted down George Street to accommodate tramworks. He believed Princes Street will be prioritised as the city’s “main transport artery” in future.

His views have emerged as the council revealed figures showing three quarters of visitors to George Street think its overall appearance had improved over the course of its trial. Consultants found 79 per cent of pedestrians had an improved experience, while 70 of cyclists said they had benefited.

Three quarters of all respondents were in favour of permanent pedestrianised spaces for seating, al-fresco dining or cultural activities. Less than half (42 per cent) felt it was important for car parking to be available.

Mr Neal said: “George Street is a great place, but when you fill it with cars and buses the quality of the experience of being able to enjoy it is reduced.

“There should be much more emphasis for pedestrians and, to some extent, for cyclists as well. They have probably got more out of it just now than the experience for pedestrians.

“It should be a better place for pedestrians to walk along and dwell. We should be creating spaces for people to sit down and enjoy a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, or read a newspaper. We just don’t have that at the moment. I’m definitely in favour of more space and emphasis for pedestrians and cyclists versus traffic, particularly buses.

“I don’t see it being all one way or the other. I think we’ll have some kind of mixed use, perhaps at different times of the day or different times of the year. But I don’t see it going back to car parking in the middle of the street and two lanes of traffic going in both directions as the future. Everyone’s seen a glimpse of a better way.”

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Part of George Street was closed off to traffic during the Fringe in 2013 and 2014, with the council then rolling out a 12-month experiment which it hopes will build support for a permanent shake-up of the New Town street.

Businesses are understood to be divided over whether bus services should be taken off the street, while others want to see some parking spaces retained. Controversial pavilions which the council allowed to be installed outside bars and restaurants have proved unpopular with heritage organisations.

Although it is likely to be next year before any plans for a permanent shake-up are approved, the council has pledged to retain some of the more popular elements of the experiment after it draws to a close in September.

Mr Neal added: “When all the tramworks were on and all the buses were rerouted down George Street, it did a lot of damage to some of the buildings and the road surface.

“Even although there are a lot less buses on George Street now, one of the things we’ve already learned is that creating a better overall environment is good for the street. Getting the balance right between access and parking and pedestrian space is the clever bit. The overwhelming feedback from the research by the council shows people visiting the street are preferring more space for them and less space for traffic.

“Princes Street is buzzing at the moment. I think it’s quite clear it’s going to be the main transport artery. Retail will survive there because of the footfall and increasingly we’ll see bars and restaurants going into the first floors of buildings and above, so that people can benefit from the views of Edinburgh Castle.”

City transport leader Lesley Hinds said: “After the trial is over and we’ve evaluated it fully, we look forward to consulting on permanent changes to make George Street attractive to residents, shoppers and tourists.

“Until then, we’ll keep it under careful review and will continue to gather feedback from users of the street, residents and businesses to get a detailed picture of which elements have been successful.

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“Although technically everything could revert to how it was pre-trial, we don’t want to lose popular features while we go through the necessary process, so we’ll be bringing a report back in June looking at options for reviewing cycle provision and other successful aspects of the trial on an interim basis.”