The historic street, which during normal times can become severely gridlocked with drivers trying to find on-street car parking spaces, will be given a ‘European boulevard feel’ to better accentuate the A-listed buildings that adorn it.
Bus stops will be located at either end of the city centre, and car parking will remain for blue badge holders and for loading access for businesses.
The plans form part of Edinburgh City Council’s ten-year transformation project, which will see the city centre become largely car-free by 2030.
Convener of the council’s transport committee, and SNP councillor for Liberton and Gilmerton, Lesley Macinnes, said: “George Street has essentially become a car park. And we have this phenomenal street, of immense beauty, that has become obscured - and the use of George Street has changed over the years, from retail towards hospitality, and we’re certainly seeing a spine of people using that as a car park.
“Why, as a city, would we not want to showcase that beautiful street? It fits very well within the city centre transformation plan, and is one of the key building blocks of the overall feel of the city centre we’re moving towards.
“The plans fit very well within our overall feel for turning the city centre into a much more people-friendly setting, where people arrive in the city centre in a very different way, with much more reliance on public transport or walking or cycling - much more sustainable methods, while still providing accessibility for those who need it.”
A spokesperson for Edinburgh City Council said: “Improvements are being delivered as part of a coordinated package of projects under Edinburgh City Centre Transformation.
“This includes the forthcoming Meadows to George Street and City Centre West to East Link schemes, which will transform walking, wheeling and cycling routes and connections across the city centre.
“These schemes also support the City Mobility Plan, a ten-year strategy to overhaul transport and mobility in the capital to deliver a sustainable, net zero carbon and inclusive future.
“The concept design for George Street, which has been progressed by a design team led by Tetratech with LDA Landscape Design, follows several years of development and engagement to refine design objectives with the public and stakeholders, including community councils and heritage, business, walking, cycling and accessibility groups.”
Edinburgh City Council first agreed to increase pedestrian space in the city centre in 2013 and beginning in 2014 a new layout was trialled for 18 months on George Street.
Since then design principles have been developed and the project was widened to include the interconnecting Castle, Frederick and Hanover Streets and the junctions with Charlotte and St Andrew Squares.
Further consultation with key stakeholders is set to take place over the next month, the outcome of which will inform a final design proposal, set to be brought before the council’s transport and environment committee in April.
The required statutory processes under which the scheme will be constructed would then begin in the summer.
Councillor Macinnes added: “What is really interesting is that yes, we’re still providing access for blue badge holders, for example, and providing access at certain times for loading for businesses - but I think the sense of calm on that street will have a mark on traffic more than anything else I’ve seen on George Street, and in the city centre in general.
“It very much feeds into that European boulevard feel - the wide pavements, strolling, the calmness that will be brought from the removement of other traffic, it is part of that.”
Simon Strain, Interim Head of Infrastructure Delivery for Sustrans Scotland said: “George Street is one of the most vibrant and distinctive shopping streets in Scotland, thanks to the insightful planning of James Craig.
“We are pleased to be supporting the increased space for walking, wheeling and cycling that this project will create, upgrading one of the city’s key travel routes.
“The new spaces for sitting and relaxing provide both visitors and residents with comfortable spaces where they can rest and enjoy the World Heritage Site.”
A spokesperson for Edinburgh Access Panel said: “EAP is aware that George Street currently presents many obstacles for people with disabilities.
“We are delighted to be involved in a scheme which will remove so many barriers that prevent a significant proportion of the population, both residents and visitors from being able to participate fully in the many facilities that are available in this attractive central city location.”
Living Streets Edinburgh: “Edinburgh – perhaps uniquely for a European city of its size and history – lacks any significant space in the city centre where pedestrians really come first.
“George Street has been dominated by traffic and parking for too long and is the obvious place to put this right in the heart of the New Town.
“These proposals offer the prospect of George Street becoming a place where it is finally a pleasure to walk in and linger.”
George St Association“There is no doubt that the current preoccupation of George Street Association members is how to recover when the prolonged coronavirus restrictions are lifted.
“However, we have a mutual interest with the City Council and others involved in this ambitious project to deliver the high-quality changes needed for the future success of this iconic street.
“This overdue transformation to the appearance and operation of George Street will impact on our members and affected businesses in the area will need support throughout the inevitable disruption involved.
“We appreciate the opportunity for ongoing engagement with the City Council on the final concept design and thereafter.”
Essential Edinburgh: “Essential Edinburgh welcomes the proposed concept designs for George Street which are the result of extensive consultation.
“It is vital the design works for all its users whether they be retail and hospitality businesses, residents, office workers and people undertaking active travel.
“The design takes this into account including issues related to servicing and accessibility and we look forward to continuing to work with the Council and other stakeholders to support delivery of a plan that works for all.”
Richard Grant, from Spokes, said: “George Street forms a crucial section of the Council's flagship west-east 'CCWEL' cycle route project, as well as being a major destination in its own right.
“The new George Street plans, taking lessons from European "cycle streets," provide a wide central "cycling zone" shared with blue badge and (at restricted times) delivery vehicles treated as 'guests.'
“This replaces the previously planned segregated bidirectional cycle route.
“This will be an innovative scheme for Scotland, which could be widely followed, and as such the Council must get it right.
“Given the funding from Sustrans, safe and pleasant conditions for cycling and walking are critical.
“Spokes welcomes the scheme subject to strict enforcement of the limited number and timings of permitted vehicles, as well as design details.
“We particularly welcome the assurance of enforcement, by automated means such as number plate recognition or in other ways, which is essential to success.”
Conservative transport spokesperson Cllr Susan Webber Tory transport and Conservative city centre Cllr Jo Mowat said: "We were disappointed in what officers themselves described in our briefing as “surface dressing”.
“The ambition and original intentions of these project appear to have been somewhat set aside.
“Any changes to George Street are always going to be controversial and part of the difficulty is trying to make it work for all the different users of the street.
“It’s really important now that all the different users take part in the consultation so we can design out conflicts and ensure that the street works in the short term and long term.
“We are concerned that the current design doesn’t allow larger events to be placed in the street which is important to protect our green spaces and build on the testing that has previously been done.”