Time for straight talking on capital's great traffic tangle

THIS may be a stupid question. But better to look daft now than see another avoidable kink added to the trams saga. If Edinburgh's trams are to run beside a central reservation – not pavements – with buses on either side, can a cyclist on Princes Street be anything other than a cycle sandwich?

If almost the same number of buses are running – only 23 of 520 will go when the trams start running – with 12 trams an hour in each direction, won't Princes Street be horribly congested for pedestrians too?

And if there isn't a pretty good alternative to Princes Street for cyclists, can someone explain how Edinburgh council can possibly meet its laudably ambitious Treaty of Brussels target of 15 per cent of city centre journeys being made by bike in 2020?

The demonstration tram on the pavement edge by Jenners may have suggested trams will meet the kerb and that no other transport mode will be competing for road space. The prospect of a fabulously quiet, airy, uncongested, people-centred and bike-friendly vista has been created. Bliss.

But in reality, as buses returning to Princes Street will demonstrate this Sunday, buses and trams are intended to run alongside one another, leaving less space for pedestrians, cyclists and other road users than ever before. The argument is that the two systems must be integrated and on current plans city centre passengers can only hop off the tram and on to buses at one place – the sole tram stop in Princes Street.

Perhaps that will be fine. The triumphant return of those much-loved maroon double-deckers to Princes Street after months of exile in George Street will be an enormous St Andrew's Day present for beleaguered retailers.

But for the long-term development of the capital, buses and trams running together in Princes Street could be the wrong move and fail to address the real reasons it is losing trade. During the bus "ban", retail figures have been down. From which you could conclude that buses fuel sales. But retail figures in George Street have been no better, which suggests trams and buses are in the wrong streets. Trams are designed for people too posh to abandon their cars. The kind of people who shop in George Street and generally like to park. The extra bus traffic, congestion and suspended parking bays have deterred them from jumping in their Range Rovers to scour Hamilton & Inches for Christmas gifts. Any number of extra buses has not moved them.

The main tram route, however, does not directly serve the posh shoppers of George Street, but the popular shoppers of Princes Street, whose younger, less affluent shoppers are, ironically, bus people. Some might wish to start again and put trams, pedestrians and cyclists in George Street, buses in Princes Street and cars in Queen Street. But we can't start again – so now the planning for these roads needs to be absolutely tip-top.

Cyclists campaign group Spokes outlined an alternative layout at a meeting last week. They contend the tramline is a big deterrent for all but the most confident cyclists. Overtaking a bus will prompt worries about getting wheels stuck in the tramline – extremely dangerous – so the cyclists want Princes Street for trams, cycles and pedestrians, restoring space, silence, safety and direct views of the Castle and Gardens, with buses back in George Street and cars in Queen Street. Their fallback option is buses on the shop side of Princes Street, with a two-way cycle lane on the other, bus-free carriageway.

Do they have a point? And are they right in suggesting that unless Edinburgh council seizes the moment and pioneers radical change on the back of the tram disruption, the city will have missed the chance of several lifetimes?

Former transport convener Professor David Begg thinks so. He backs the idea of a modal tram/bus/car split across the three parallel city centre routes and regrets not banning cars completely when Princes Street became one-way.

Begg observes that London's bus-only Oxford Street is a gridlocked failure, and suggests mayor Boris Johnson may soon announce plans to replace buses there with… a tram system like Edinburgh's. But George Street is far from ideal for buses. Lothian buses managing director, Ian Craig, describes it as an "urban canyon" where fumes are trapped and contribute to poor air quality – on Princes Street is apparently absorbed by the greenery of the Gardens. George Street is also hard to manoeuvre, with more corners and junctions than Princes Street's straight run. But the biggest argument is modal integration – or jumping between trams and buses – which can happen only if they are side by side on Princes Street.

Bus users alighting at the busy Lothian Road/Princes Street junction will have to walk back to Shandwick Place to catch a tram, and in St Andrew Square, bus and tram stops will be on opposite sides.

Of the current options, perhaps the best compromise is for eastbound buses to travel on the shop side, cyclists to travel east and west on the Gardens side of Princes Street, and westbound buses to shift back to George Street. Or maybe there's a better solution that hasn't been considered.

So far there doesn't seem to be a single, clear vision for the most stunning vista of any British city. Is Princes Street to become a European-style Grand Alle, with pavement cafs, ambience and mixed use (hotels and more civic buildings, not just high street fashion chains)? Or is it too valuable as a wide, straight, transport conduit to lose? Can tram stops align with existing junctions like Lothian Road? Or would that add millions to the price tag?

The council should not be scared from early consultation with Edinburghers by the memory of the congestion-charging debacle. The time is right for a proper debate.