Bumpy road for the city's cyclists

CONGESTION on the Capital's roads can garner opinions in much the same way rock star Pete Doherty attracts sniffer dogs.

Everyone has got something to say and, given the botched congestion charging and traffic management schemes in recent years, they have had no shortage of talking points. But a perennial favourite for all ranting road users is when two wheels come up against four.

Cyclists and motorists have traditionally enjoyed a love/hate relationship and, with a foot in both camps, I fully understand the frustrations.

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The view from the steering-wheel side of the windscreen is often not too favourable: cyclists are the pavement riding idiots who laugh in the face of the highway code.

While perceptions from the lycra-clad side of the fence are often not much better. Parking in cycle lanes, not looking before pulling out of junctions and riding so close to the back tyre they could count the spokes are all common complaints.

Shoddy behaviour from both groups, and let's not leave bus and lorry drivers out of the equation, has created age-old frustrations that have been compounded by the way our city's ancient streets creek under growing levels of traffic.

But is it not entirely the fault of drivers or cyclists; Edinburgh's layout thrusts them into conflict.

The design of the city's roads, often little changed from the days of the penny-farthing, means cyclists are continually forced to rub elbows with wing mirrors.

Moving away from this situation, giving proper segregated lanes for cyclists and motorists, is the direction that we have and should be moving in.

In London segregated cycling lanes were introduced as part of the congestion charge scheme and have proved very popular. Keeping the on-road tribes apart, where space permits obviously, would speed up journeys and cut down on accidents and frustrations for both parties.

But plans revealed last week mean we may be turning the clock back.

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Cycling lobby groups were left disappointed on Saturday when it emerged the 545 million tram project could lose them their segregated lanes on two of the city's busiest streets.

TIE - the council-backed firm building the tram line - is proposing to keep a one metre-wide lane for bikes on Leith Walk but has still to make its mind up in terms of what to do for Princes Street.

The Leith Walk plans are better than nothing but leave the door wide open, well, for a door being opened and knocking a cyclist over. While on Princes Street, one of the widest spaces in the city centre, we could see dedicated cycle lanes disappear altogether. Where Edinburgh has made great strides is in its off-road cycle path network, particularly the former railway lines in the north of the city which were converted to cycling in the 1980s.

Elsewhere the Innocent Path follows a scenic route between St Leonard's and Portobello again on a former railway line but it's the connections beyond these off-road links where conflict with motorists is found.

In all, Edinburgh has 46 miles of on-road cycle paths, which include Princes Street and The Mound and around the same in off-road paths.

This is something that needs to be built on, with a greater network of paths.

There is also still scope for opening up some of the city's abandoned tunnels for cycling use. An obvious choice would be the mile-long Scotland Street tunnel.

Though they would have to make a better job of any work here than the stalled efforts to put a new cycle path and walkway in the Rodney Street tunnel in Canonmills. The route, being re-opened after 40 years to let cyclists and walkers avoid a busy road on their way between the city centre and the city's foreshore, has hit the buffers because of the council's cash crisis.

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It is a classic example of the sort of 'missing link' that would make people think twice about whether they could in fact cycle to work while moving cyclists away from what is a busy junction.

Further consideration also needs to be given so that the city's cycle network grows in the same places where we expect major development in Edinburgh.

This includes the Waterfront but also out to the south-east of Edinburgh.

Plans for up to seven bike lanes to improve access to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and the neighbouring new biomedical research park were announced by the council early last year but there has been little movement since.

Edinburgh is a fairly compact city, which, despite a few steep hills, does lend itself to being relatively cyclist-friendly.

It is, of course, ridiculous to think you can keep cyclists and drivers entirely separated from each other but overall there are clear hotspots and key routes - such as the wide-open boulevard that is Princes Street - where segregated routes would benefit all road users.

A balance has to be struck of course, for example cyclists now make up a fifth of all rush-hour traffic on Lothian Road.

This is high but still clearly a minority but it does need to be reflected in the make-up of our city's roads.