Wednesday, December 2, 2015

A Pedestrian on Princes Street - One Year On

One year ago, Aspa and I made a video about the pedestrian experience on Princes Street. We had just arrived in Edinburgh from Utrecht, and were really shocked by how unpleasant parts of Edinburgh are for pedestrians. It took us six minutes to walk just one hundred metres. The Edinburgh Evening News picked up the story, and Fountainbridge made a number of follow up videos showing just how dangerous the junction of Princes Street and Frederick Street is. Recently Living Streets produced this. If you make pedestrians wait up to four and a half minutes for a green man then, understandably, they tend to just take their chances on the red. Sadly in August a pedestrian was killed crossing the road here.

This post is about what I think should be done, and why.

The Decline of Princes Street

Princes Street used to be regarded as Scotland's premier shopping street. But if it was once a pleasant place to browse the shops, with surely one of the best views of any shopping street in Europe, it has fallen a long way. Ian Wall, on leaving his post as head of EDI in 2008, remarked "As high-quality retail shifts out of Princes Street, as it is consistently doing, it will continue to move downmarket and we will end up with the sort of street that the Bridges has become." I cannot think that there will be any quality shops to the west of the Frederick Street junction once the new St. James centre opens unless significant changes are made here.

Princes street will never be a pleasant or successful shopping street if it isn't safe and convenient for people to shop there. While the Frederick St. junction is far from the only thing that makes Princes street a hostile environment for pedestrians, it is extremely bad, and more importantly it is quite fixable.


It's Not Just About Pedestrians

This junction doesn't work well for anyone. This video by a taxi driver shows buses and taxis heading east along Princes street getting held up for seventy seconds at this junction. Princes street is horribly congested for buses and taxis, and the problem at this junction isn't just that too much priority has been given to motor vehicles over pedestrians, it is that the junction is fundamentally unable to handle what it is being asked to do. Tweaking the timings on traffic lights will not make this junction work.


What Should Be Done?

This is the tricky bit. But in the absence of any proposals from the council at the moment, here's my solution which makes things better for pedestrians, buses and taxis. Close the junction. Make it impossible to turn from Princes Street into Frederick Street and vice versa. I'll explain a bit about the cost and benefits of this below. 


What are the Downsides?

Traffic (i.e. buses and taxis) heading east along Princes St. and wanting to turn up Frederick St. would be forced to use South Charlotte St. and either George St. or Queen St. While this would not take any longer, it may force a couple of bus stops to be relocated.

Traffic heading west along Princes St. and wanting to turn up Frederick St. would be forced to use South St. David's St. and turn on to George St. or Queen St. (Note that since you can't turn from the Mound into Princes St., all of the traffic on Princes St. is already there at St David's St., so the turn I suggested is possible). While this wouldn't slow down any traffic, it would cause a few bus lines to have to alter their route slightly.

The same is true for the reverse routes of the above.


And the Upsides? 

Very many. Firstly you ensure that the primary purpose of Princes Street, providing a safe and pleasant shopping environment, is served much better by the layout. The changes make Princes Street a much less stressful place to be a shopper, and reduce congestion on the pavements. We're not talking about marginal gains here, shops on the West End of Princes street currently feel disconnected from the rest because of this crossing and footfall drops off significantly beyond it.

Secondly, and very significantly the vast majority of bus and taxi traffic which travels along Princes Street without turning will have a shorter journey, as they no longer have to wait seventy seconds at this junction. A quick count via google maps gave 39 bus routes which go through the junction, of which only ten turn into it. If you stand and watch the junction for five minutes it's clear that nearly all traffic going through the junction is just traffic staying on Princes Street, for this traffic the journey times go down by quite a lot.

Not only will the journey time for traffic heading along Princes Street be shorter, it will be more predictable, there will no longer be the occasional two minute hold up for an incoming tram.


Summing Up

This change is a no-brainer for me. Nearly all the traffic on Princes Street will have a shorter and much more predictable journey time. Pedestrians will have a much shorter wait, and won't be tempted to cross the junction when unsafe to do so. The west end of Princes Street won't feel so isolated, and the large shops there might survive rather than just relocating to St James. A few bus routes will have to move a little, but this is not an insurmountable problem, especially given how poor the pedestrian experience is at the moment, and how much improved it would be.

At the very least, I'd like to see the council do a serious cost benefit analysis of this, I think it works for everyone. 

Saturday, October 10, 2015

George Street

This post is going to be fairly disjointed, it's just a few disconnected thoughts I have about George Street and what should be done with it.

For background, I usually travel around town by bike or on foot, although I regularly take the bus or use one of the city car club cars too. I take the train from Waverley most days. I've lived in Edinburgh for just over about year, before that I lived in the Dutch city of Utrecht.

Anyway, here are my thoughts...

1) The consultation has rightly sought to find out people's opinions on a wide range of issues. But when commonly held opinions differ from data gathered by the council, the council should not be afraid of trusting their data. For example, many people are of the opinion that the majority of shoppers on George Street get there by car, data from Essential Edinburgh shows this to be very very wrong. If we are planning for the movement of people throughout our city it is important to know how most people get around, not how we think most people get around.

2) We should have a serious think about the effect that car parking and bus stops have on the economy and attractiveness of George Street. It is notable that pedestrian footfall went up (and by more than the rest of the city centre) when vehicular access went down.

3) Leith Walk has lots of lovely smooth bike lane which serves as an excellent place for people to double park. If there is to be car parking on George Street then the bike lane should be on the pavement side of this, otherwise the bike lane will be permanently blocked by cars dropping people off. Don't overestimate the council's ability to enforce the rules here, the only way to keep the bike lane clear is to make it impractical for cars to use.

4) It is perfectly possible for vans making deliveries to shops to be parked  the other side of the bike lane from the shop. This happened every day on my commute to work in Utrecht. There is no problem with allowing vans to make deliveries to shops and cyclists to have a safe-segregated bike lane. 

5) If the current plan is not to pedestrianised any part of George Street year round, then at the very least it should be pedestrianised during the festival.

It strikes me that none of the planners that I've met at the two consultations for George Street were of the opinion that George street is fundamental to the movement of cars or buses through the city, but they want to keep some traffic on George street because they worry it will look too empty in the winter months if there is no traffic and few shoppers. I don't agree with this view and think that year round pedestrianisation would work, but it seems that this is not being seriously considered by the planners at the moment.

At the very least though, we should completely pedestrianise George street and fill it with exciting events for the summer months, when we have lots of footfall and lots of scope for making George Street a really exciting place.

The question of how this is done needs thinking about now. If you encourage cars and buses to rely on George street then you need to think about how to remove them in the Summer. This is a particular issue given that buses can't turn from Princes Street to Waverley Bridge at the moment.

6) If there are occasional buses using George Street this can be done without creating an overtaking lane, other vehicles can wait behind for thirty seconds.

Anyway, as I said, pretty disjointed, but these were my thoughts and they didn't fit on the post it notes available at the consultation! 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Pedestrian Guardrail

In this article I'm asking for Edinburgh City Council's 'South Team' to commit a small amount of money and an afternoon of a council officer's time to ordering the removal of some guardrail in Southside.

In most situations pedestrian guardrail (metal barriers between the pavement and the road) is a very bad thing. It causes pedestrian congestion, narrows pavements, makes drivers drive faster, forces pedestrians off their desire lines and kills cyclists by trapping them against it every time they get taken out by a left turning driver who didn't check their mirrors. Most of all it gives the impression that our streets are not places for people to walk, meet or shop, but places for cars to drive quickly. There's a good document on guardrail by Transport for London.

Fortunately Edinburgh City Council has excellent policy on pedestrian guardrail, recognising that it is only appropriate in certain limited situations and that it should be removed unless there are compelling safety reasons for keeping it (and these reasons should be real, contrary to popular belief guardrail provides very little protection against out of control vehicles - it's simply not strong enough to slow them down significantly). 

Removing guardrail is cheap, the guardrail on Princes street used to be routinely removed for five days during the Hogmanay celebrations and then reinstated, and this FOI request shows the cost of removing a section in London to be 136 pounds. Even better, Edinburgh City Council has gone out of its way to make sure that their process for removing guardrail is quick and easy to implement by council officials, basing the form on best practice from Hackney. The form even has an option on the first page, 'is the guardrail obviously redundant without further investigation', which makes ordering the guardrail removal a ten minute affair and which should apply to some of the examples below.

However, removal of guardrail has been left up to neighbourhood teams whenever they have the time, money and inclination to deal with it. There have been a few examples of guardrail removed in Edinburgh in the three years since the policy was put in to place, but for the most part guardrail remains untouched and continues to blight Edinburgh's urban landscape.

I live in Newington, and I've listed below a few pieces of guardrail that make my neighbourhood much less pleasant. I've chosen locations where removing guardrail would not be controversial, they're not close to schools and are all on roads which will be 20mph under Edinburgh's great new policy. I know that time and money are always short for the council, but this will cost very little and, thanks to the council's well designed forms, be very quick. Allowing for half an hour to assess each site, this could be done in an afternoon. 

1. At the junction of Pleasance and East Crosscauseway there are three pieces of guardrail. 

2. Further down on the Pleasance at the junction with Gilmore Street.

3. Outside Summerhall there's a long strip of unsightly guardrail making it hard to cross the road. This is sometimes used for bike parking, so as outlined in the ATAP some alternative cycle parking should be sighted nearby in a way that doesn't get in the way of pedestrians.

4. By the passageway between Buccleuch Street and St Patrick's Square

5. The junction of Nicolson Street and West Nicolson Street has very heavy pedestrian footfall. Narrow pavements have their width reduced further by the guardrail, there is inadequate space at the narrow openings for the crossing, and diagonal crossing is made very difficult by the guardrail, forcing people to wait two cycles of the lights to make this crossing.

6. Further on down Nicolson Street opposite Nicolson Square Gardens, this guardrail joins forces with the three bus stops immediately after it to make crossing the road impossible between Hill Place and West Nicolson Street, an area of very heavy demand.

7. Surely a contender for the most unnecessarily difficult crossing in southside, at the junction of Chambers Street and Nicolson Street pedestrians are forced a long way off their desire lines, pavements are very congested and lots of people want to make the diagonal crossing but can't because of guardrail.

Finally a good picture showing that just because a junction is large, it doesn't mean that guardrail is necessary (or that it would improve safety). This is a large crossing at the junction of Salisbury Place and Minto Street, there are lots of shops nearby and lots of pedestrians, the B&Bs nearby ensure there are lots of confused tourists, there is no guardrail and there have been no accidents in the last five years involving pedestrians. There was a hit and run at this location in an Ian Rankin novel, but that was right on the junction when a car went through a red light so pedestrian guardrail wouldn't have helped...

Lots of great things are being done to regenerate southside, such as the Causey project and Gifford Park Mural, removing guardrail would give this regeneration an easy, quick and cheap boost. I really hope south team will take a look at each of these sites.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Leith Walk Redevelopment

This post is a comment on the Leith Walk proposals

The Leith Walk redevelopment could and should be superb. Widened pavements, easier crossings for pedestrians and safe segregated cycle routes would transform the area, creating a much nicer environment for pedestrians away from motor vehicles while making journeys faster and safer both for cyclists and for other road users. Even a short sections such as are being done at the moment could bring outdoor seating to cafes and dramatically increase the number of children walking and cycling to school. 

The current design plans fall well short of this vision. There are very welcome improvements for pedestrians, and with a few simple changes as proposed by Spokes the southbound cycle lane could be great, but the proposals for the northbound cycle lane are a shambles that will give segregated cycle infrastructure a bad name. What is most frustrating is that fixing these issues doesn't involve spending more money or slowing down cars*, it just requires better design.

To name just three problems, the proposed lane starts too late leaving cyclists to fend for themselves across McDonald road, it forces cyclists to give way to every single side road that crosses the lane, and it asks cyclists to cross a lane of left turning traffic at the Pilrig St junction in designs that are reminiscent of the unpopular and underused right turning cycle lane on Bristo Place.

We suggested changes to priority at junctions here, and a redesign of the Pilrig St Junction here.

With these changes and those proposed by Spokes** something really amazing could be done to Leith Walk. I hope the planning team will make these vital improvements, I hope my councillors will put pressure on them to do so, and I really hope that in a year's time we'll all be celebrating a vibrant and rejuvenated streetscape on Leith Walk. 

(*) Although given that motor traffic on Leith Walk has fallen by 35% in the last decade I don't think that taking time away from cars to boost priority for pedestrians and bikes at junctions would be inappropriate.

(**) I'm particularly fond of Spokes suggestion that Brunswick Street should be closed at Leith Walk, ending the rat run for HGVs through to London Road and creating a much nicer atmosphere for the street and for the outdoor cafes nearby. It could even be the site of Edinburgh's next parklet! 

Monday, June 22, 2015

Side Road Priority on Leith Walk

This is a short blog about priority of cycle lanes over side roads on Leith walk. I wrote earlier about the junction with Pilrig Street, and will blog later on the scheme as a whole. For a summary, there is much to like in the plans but they are hugely let down by a number of fixable issues, but if these aren't fixed the bike lanes won't come close to achieving what they're capable of. Spokes has a great response to the scheme as a whole here.

In particular, a really major defect with the current plans is that they do not give priority to the bike lane over minor side roads. As such, cycling down the segregated lanes will be much slower than cycling on the road, even for people like myself who like to bimble along at 8-10mph. This significantly reduces the attractiveness of the cycle lanes and will lead to a lot of more confident cyclists ignoring them.

The side roads are very minor, and I'm sure the council doesn't want to give them priority over the cycle lane. Rather, the council officials that I spoke to at the consultation on Thursday were concerned that giving priority to the cycle lane could be dangerous if cars didn't understand, and would be incompatible with UK traffic laws. There are masses of examples from the UK and elsewhere which contradict these assertions.

Here are some examples of priority being given to cycle lanes over side roads. Many of these examples have issues, but I just wanted to make the point that it's quite possible to give priority for segregated bike lanes over side roads in the UK. The first is from Glasgow, I took it from Cycle Streets.

The second pair are in London, and I read about them on (and borrowed the google map images from) the excellent Alternative DFT blog about visual priority.

A different junction on Cable Street, this time the cycleway is unbroken by kerbs or painted lines, and priority is clear.
A junction on the Cable Street cycleway in London. The cycleway has priority, but everything suggests otherwise: the kerb and yellow lines cut across the cycleway, creating confusion.

Finally there is an example from our very own Buccleuch Street!

The colouring of the cycle lane could be much better, but segregated cycle lanes with priority over side roads already exist in Edinburgh.

The point is that giving priority to the cycle lane over side roads is certainly possible with UK traffic regulations. Indeed, a much better and more detailed discussion of this by a UK road traffic engineer can be found here.

There is of course a question about how these lanes can be best designed. And for that we turn again to the Alternative Department for Transport. In short, raised tables (which the LW plans already have), tight corners (which the LW plans already have), no kerbs across the cycle lane and extremely visible continuous colouring of the cycle lane.

Giving priority to cycle lanes is quite doable and is absolutely fundamental to securing the success of the Leith Walk scheme. I really hope the council officers will amend their plans to give cyclists this priority.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Leith Walk - Pilrig Street Junction

Recently the council updated its proposals for the revamp of Leith Walk between Mcdonal Road and Pilrig Street. There are some very welcome aspects, including much widened pavements, but the northbound cycle lane is a mess. In particular, the designers seem to have given up on taking the segregated cycle route safely through the Pilrig St junction and instead are asking cyclists to cross a lane of left turning traffic in order to be able to go straight on, it's dangerous and not dissimilar to the hugely unpopular and ill used cycle lane for right turning cyclists on Bristo Place. There is no real provision for cyclists turning right from Leith Walk southbound into Pilrig Street. If this project is done well it will be superb, so I just wanted to indicate that taking the cycle lanes safely across Pilrig street can be done easily without needing more space or slowing down the junction.

I'm not a road engineer, and what we've drawn probably falls well short of best practice, but it seems to me that the following back of an envelope sketch that Aspa and I came up with is a major improvement.

In particular, without causing any conflict with pedestrians, slowing down cyclists or requiring an extra phase of the lights, it eliminates the risk of northbound cyclists being taken out by a left hook or having to cross a lane of traffic. It also makes turning from Leith Walk into Pilrig St much safer and cycling southbound on Leith Walk considerably quicker as one only has to wait for pedestrians.

The traffic light phasing goes as follows:

Stage 1: all pedestrians cross. Right turning cyclists from Leith walk southbound cycle lane turn into Pilrig St but stop before the Pilrig St. pedestrian crossing.

Stage 2: Traffic on Pilrig St turns into Leith walk. Cars on Leith walk northbound turn left into Pilrig St. Cyclists on Leith walk northbound turn left onto Pilrig St. Cyclists on Leith Walk southbound go straight on.

Stage 3: Cars on Leith Walk northbound continue through the Pilrig St. Junction. Cyclists on Leith Walk northbound continue through the Pilrig St. Junction. Cars on Leith Walk southbound, including those turning right into Pilrig St, continue. Cyclists on Leith Walk southbound continue. Cyclists on Leith walk southbound who wish to turn into Pilrig St. proceed only as far as point marked A and wait for stage 1.

Anyway, as I said this might not be the perfect solution, but it's what we came up with in half an hour on the back of an envelope. The point is that cyclists can be taken safely across the Pilrig St junction, and that the council should make sure that this happens.

P.S. The only point of conflict that we can see is between traffic from LW southbound turning into Pilrig Street across the cycle lane, but this is a standard issue with cycle lanes including with the council's current plan (and indeed all on-road cycle lanes). Sight lines are clear since the left turning traffic from LW northbound to Pilrig has been made to wait long before the junction.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Fountainbridge Brewery: A Vital Link for Active Travel

This is a both a comment on Planning Application 14/05337/PAN and a wider comment on links between south Edinburgh and Haymarket. The developers consultation closes tomorrow, but there will be a council run consultation later.

I used to live next to Sciennes Primary and commute to Haymarket every morning. With a few changes, particularly in relation to planning application 14/05337/PAN, this could be an extremely direct, pleasant route for commuters to Haymarket from Sciennes, Marchmont, Bruntsfield and Fountainbridge. It's well used at the moment by cyclists and pedestrians, despite a total lack of signage and the defects that I'm going to outline below, and I really think this should become one of the nicest and well used routes for active travel in Edinburgh. Significantly, doing this route by car is difficult, and we have a chance to make something where cycling and walking are faster than going by car. Haymarket is booming, and if Edinburgh wants to achieve its ambitious active travel targets then improving and promoting this route is an absolute must. The bit of the route that I want to focus on is marked in blue on the map below.

The route starts at the top of Leamington Terrace, which is connected to Bruntsfield Links by a toucan crossing. Leamington Terrace is far from perfect, and I don't know what it's like at rush hour, but it does at least have lots of speedbumps and is set to become a 20mph road. We then pass on to Leamington road, which is the small link to the canal at the bottom of Leamington Terrace, before crossing the canal and continuing down Gilmore park. At the bottom, keep going pretty much straight on unnamed roads until you come on to Morrison Crescent, and then nip through the Dalry colonies to find yourself very close to Haymarket. Since the route has never been accessible by car, it's become quite nice by bike or on foot, and could become really superb. But there are lots of issues that need sorting out, for me the main ones are as follows:

1. Crossing from Leamington Terrace to Leamington road is difficult. It will hopefully get easier as the speed limit on Gilmore place comes down, but I see lots of school children walking this way, we could do with a pedestrian crossing.

2. Leamington Road is one way, so on my way home I have to walk it. It's only a ten metre section, could we make it two way for bikes, or even better stick a bollard at the junction of Gilmore Place and Leamington Road so that the only access for cars is from the other side. This part of the route is used by masses of pedestrians and cyclists, it's a shame to close it to cyclists in one direction. Without a bollard this road may become a huge problem road with parents dropping off kids once the school opens on the other side of the canal.

3. Gilmore Park is okay at the moment since there's no reason for cars to use it, but it needs protecting as the brewery site is redeveloped.

We now move on to points relevant to the current planning application. If our council is serious about active travel it must insist the developers address these problems in their plans.

4. Crossing Dundee Street when coming from Gilmore Park is a nightmare if you're on your bike. Something significant needs to be done here, my suggestion would be for the junction of Dundee Street/Gilmore Park to be raised and the toucan crossing moved to this junction.

5. The unnamed route between Dundee Street and W Approach Road is far too narrow. It's shared space that attracts very many people, and there's just not enough room at the moment. Bikes have no option but to use the shared space since if they went on the road (on the right of the picture) they'd be going the wrong way down a one-way street. The new development (14/05337/PAN) will contribute significant extra footfall to this shared space, and so needs to contribute land to widen the path. This should be in the form of a wide (MMW style) segregated space with the bikes on the south.

6. Approaching the Western Approach Road, the current slope forces bikes into conflict with pedestrians at every turn. It's also not passable by two bikes going in opposite directions. The new segregated bike path should be continued to the south of the steps with a direct slope down to the level of the Western Approach Road.

7.The lights at the Western Approach Road are an absolute disaster. If they have recently gone green for pedestrians then it will take about forty seconds after pushing the button for them to go green again. The car traffic on the Western Approach Road is only heading towards other traffic jams anyway, this certainly isn't a pinch point for motor traffic and the waiting times for pedestrians should be reduced.

8. Finally a word of warning as to what happens when we don't force developers to cater for active travel. The developers who built the care home at the top of the Dalry colonies were allowed to pretty much sever this link for bikes by making the path narrow with a sharp corner. There are no cycling signs there now. The bike route goes around three sides of the care home, significantly longer and much less convenient.

I should add that this is my perspective as a youngish, relatively fit cyclist, I don't know whether Spokes are going to comment on the proposals, but they may well have lots of points that I've not thought of. These were just my thoughts as a daily user of the path.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Bus Lane Retreat: Formal Objection

Following on from last night's post about why I'm opposed to the council's policy to reduce the hours of operation of bus lanes in the city centre, here is my formal objection.

Dear sir/madam,

I'm writing to object to ETRO 14/38B and ETRO14/38A regarding the scaling back of Edinburgh's bus lane network.

The council are pursuing a policy of standardisation of bus lane operation hours apparently in order to reduce driver confusion and increase the legal use of bus lanes outside of the hours of operation. I do not understand the assertion that this policy, which will standardise hours of operation for 90% of bus lanes, will achieve these effects. The hours of operation are still not standardised, ten percent of lanes will still be all day, and even if they were uniform it seems highly optimistic to imagine that drivers confused by bus lane hours of operation are likely to be affected by this policy. People know the hours of operation of bus lanes on routes they use regularly, the 'confused' most likely come from out of town, I don't think it's credible to believe that they'd hear about the partial standardisation or be any less confused after the it is implemented. The bus lanes that are currently all day don't cause any traffic problems during the day, a good look at how traffic flows can be seen on the google maps traffic tab.

This policy will make it less convenient for me to take the bus. It will make it less safe to ride my bike, less pleasant to walk to the shops, and less easy to cross the road. It is in direct contradiction to everything that this council has worked hard to do to make Edinburgh a nicer place to live. The council's policies are working, bus use is up, bike use is up, there are more people walking in our city and fewer people driving. This progress has not come easily, every small positive step has been a hard battle by campaigners and council leaders. That the council would imperil this progress with an ill thought through retreat on bus lanes mystifies me.

The only explanation that I can think of is that this is political and that the council is seeking to do something for drivers to 'balance' policies which are good for pedestrians (as if those two aims were in opposition). Of course anyone who has waited three minutes to cross the road in our city centre would entirely dispute that our city prioritises active travel over driving, but more significantly this policy doesn't actually do anything for car drivers. Even the most car mad of voters will not long remember a council policy that solves a problem that isn't there. This policy is bad politics and bad administration, it undermines all of the hard work that the council is doing to encourage active travel and it makes our city less pleasant,  I hope the council will reconsider it. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Please Don't Roll Back Our Bus Lanes

Just a quick post to join in with those arguing that Edinburgh's plans to convert all day bus lanes into peak time only bus lanes would be a regrettable step backwards. I'm focusing on Leith Walk as that's the stretch that I know best, but the council are planning to replace 25 miles of all day buslane with lanes that operate during peak hours only. So, the issues in brief:

Would this speed up car traffic?

Perhaps, slightly, but I'm really not convinced. Chiefly because there aren't significant traffic problems at these places. You can look at the excellent traffic tab on google maps to get an idea of what typical traffic speeds are like at different times of the day. There are four different levels and nearly all of Leith Walk is at the second best of these levels on weekday afternoons and evenings, just like Clerk street or Bruntsfield Place, traffic flowing normally. I'd guess that means it's going at about twenty miles per hour, which is what the speed limit will be soon anyway.

What about reducing confusion about bus lanes?

Sometimes drivers don't like to use bus lanes even when they're allowed to. I'm not sure why, but my guess is that either they're in a place that they don't drive very often and don't want to keep checking the signs for the hours of operation, or they just think it's less hassle to avoid the bus lanes in the same way that some people just sit in the middle lane of motorways. The new policy won't have any effect on the second group. Of the first group, only those who live in Edinburgh (and so learn about the standardisation of bus lanes) but are driving on main roads that are unfamiliar to them will start using the bus lanes out of peak hours. Surely that's a pretty small group of people that you're affecting.

Why Not?

This policy would go against the positive steps that the council are making to encourage active travel and be another hurdle that we put in the way of people walking, cycling or taking the bus. It would mean that people walking or cycling on Leith Walk would be right next to huge lorries. It would mean that crossing the road is almost impossible without using the traffic lights. It would make it that little bit more difficult for me to check out that interesting cheese shop on the other side of the road, businesses would surely suffer as passing through areas like Leith Walk is prioritised over walking around these areas.

I don't know quite what Edinburgh's active transport action plan means in practice. I don't know how one turns a list of priorities into a decision as to whether some particular policy is okay. But Edinburgh has made a commitment to prioritise walking, cycling and getting the bus over driving a car. At the very least, I think this means that a policy that has a significant negative effect on cyclists and pedestrians, and a minor negative effect on bus users, must have an absolutely transformative effect on car traffic to get anywhere near the discussion table. I just don't believe that it would, google maps says there aren't any traffic problems to fix, and the council hasn't presented any evidence in support of the policy.

I like our council, and I like what they're doing for active travel. More importantly, it's having an effect, there are more pedestrians, more cyclists, many more bus users and fewer people driving to work in our city. Please don't undo this progress with an ill thought through policy on bus lanes.

What Can You Do?
 Object! And quickly, you've got until Wednesday to register an objection, see the Spokes page for details.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Note of Thanks to my Local MSPs.

This is just a short (and long overdue) note to thank my local MSPs, and Jim Eadie in particular, for their recent contribution to the active travel debate in the Scottish Parliament. I didn't know anything about Jim before writing to him last month, but it turns out he's well known and respected for his hard work campaigning on a range of issues, notably on the issue of people's right to walk or cycle to work and school safely. He also mentioned my blog post, which was nice! My regional MSPs Kezia Dugdale and Alison Johnstone also made really excellent, passionate speeches. You can see the transcript of the debate here.

We live in an age of cynicism about politics and politicians, and I just wanted to put on record how impressed I am with my local MSPs and how much they've done, working together across party lines, to advance causes that I care about like safer streets for pedestrians and cyclists.

The Scottish Parliament as a whole has been deeply disappointing in its approach to active travel. I sincerely hope my MSPs can work to encourage a more enlightened approach. So, to Jim, Kezia and Alison, well done, thanks a lot, and back to work! The final budget settlement will be soon and I'm sure we'd all love to see an increased and longer term commitment to fund active travel.  

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Golden Opportunity for Leith Street

Let's begin by congratulating London on the announcement that a fully segregated east-west cycle superhighway is to be built. This is a plea for Edinburgh to do the same. Great cities thrive because they bring people together, and when people come together new ideas are born. Famously, it was for the prospect of a morning walk to work with Gödel that Einstein agreed to move to Princeton. If Edinburgh is to continue to be a wonderful city as its population grows, we need to be able to move people around, to get them to interact with each other, and we need to have a serious think about how we do that.

We tried really really hard to make the car work. We tried to the extent of building sections of dual carriageway in the middle of our city, having enormous junctions, and making people wait six minutes to walk 100m. There can be no better testament to how much success our traffic engineers have had in cramming ever more cars onto our roads than our exceptionally dangerous levels of air pollution. But, despite dedicating 95% of our road space to the private motor car, cars are unable to cater to the transport needs of more than half of our population. The speed with which a transport system gets people through a town is governed by how efficiently it can get them through junctions, and space hungry, heavy cars which are slow to accelerate just don't cut it.

Fortunately, there is another way. Buses, bikes, and most of all pedestrians take up much less space on our roads and allow people to move smoothly. The compactness that makes our city so ill suited to the car should make it an ideal place to walk and cycle. And even better, our council understands this, and their Local Transport Strategy documents emphasise the bike and the pedestrian over the car. But if the current plans for Leith Street don't change, the council are set to make a historic and expensive mistake that will gridlock us for years to come. On the flip side, give us a safe segregated route through Leith Street, surely one of Edinburgh's most dangerous and intimidating places to cycle, and one of the most substantial barriers to a safe cycle network in Edinburgh will have been overcome. This will make travel faster for everyone, it will make Edinburgh healthier and happier.

I don't think that I'm unduly timid on my bike. I cycle on Nicolson street and the bridges every day, which I guess is pretty scary in anyone's book. But I just don't dare connect to Leith Walk down past John Lewis. Many aspects of the new plans for the St James Quarter are commendable, but in failing to provide any way for cyclists to get quickly and safely from through Leith Street, these plans miss a once in a generation opportunity to put safe cycle provision on a key route.

Spokes have written an excellent response to the plans for the St James' Quarter, with which I wholeheartedly agree. Please consider this as my response to the consultation on the plans.  

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

On 20mph

Let me start this with three made up quotes.

1) (Early 2008:) We haven't had a financial crash for nearly twenty years so obviously our system of bank regulation is working.

2) Lots of Edinburgh's roads haven't had any car crashes reported to the police in the last ten years, and so must be pretty safe.

3) Drink driving should be banned, but only for people who have proved that they're dangerous drink drivers by killing someone already.

The first 'quote' could have been said by any number of our politicians just before the crash, the second is pretty reflective of a lot of arguments about road safety, and the third is hopefully pretty absurd to anyone who reads it. But they all reflect the same lack of understanding about rare events and small sets of data.

Now one of the things you learn pretty quickly when starting a career as a mathematician is that nobody likes it when you start talking about numbers at a party. Even really exciting things like this, or the fact that my new phone number is prime. But numbers are important, and sometimes you need to talk about them. There are lots of other important things too of course, like newspapers and road safety. So I thought I'd write a post about all of these things.

In particular, I'd like to talk about the Edinburgh Evening News's latest line that it has no problem with the speed reduction in principle, but that it should be restricted to roads where it will 'improve safety'. Neil Grieg, director of policy and research at the Institute of Advanced Motorists, is quoted as saying

“When Lesley Hinds and the council talk about 20mph limits, they always talk about road safety, so you would expect that one of their key ­criteria and one of their key measures of success would have to be accidents. I’m surprised they have not taken accident rates into ­account. It seems to be quite a serious omission. They should have taken crash history into account, but the problem was they were going for this blanket approach. And when you start to have this blanket approach, you are going to have 20mph limits on streets that are perfectly safe to drive at 28mph or 27mph.”

Well Neil, you shouldn't be surprised. The issue here is that you've assumed that if a road hasn't had any accidents in the last ten years then its safe. Forgive me talking maths, but what you've done is that you've failed to understand the statistics of rare events. Let me have a go at explaining.

The chance that some particular car driving down a small road in Edinburgh at 30mph will hit someone is really extremely small. It's so small in fact that some roads like Livingstone place (just next to cafe Victor Hugo) haven't had any accidents in the last ten years. But there are lots of cars which do lots of driving down lots of roads in Edinburgh, and so collectively Edinburgh's small roads host a huge number of accidents. Indeed, the road next to Livingstone place, Gladstone terrace, did have an accident in 2010 when a car hit a child. There's no real difference between Livingstone place and Gladstone terrace, it's just a quirk of small numbers. Of course, this accident was far more than a piece of data to the human beings involved.

So what the council did was to to stop fixating on the small, inadequate data, and look at the big picture. And fortunately here we have lots of data! You might like to read this review of the evidence, which shows that 'Twenty mile per hour zones and limits are effective means of improving public health via reduced accidents and injuries.' And while you're at it, you could read what Leslie Hinds and SRD have to say. And then you'd probably conclude that the council have implemented a bold, visionary policy to improve the safety and lives of their citizens, and become almost as much of a fan of the new 20mph zones as I am!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Letter from Thessaloniki

At first glance, Thessaloniki seems to fit an easy narrative. One-time beautiful, bustling multicultural Ottoman port ravaged by earthquake, fire and war, victim to population exchange and holocaust, rebuilt by people who think that boulevards jammed with six lanes of motor traffic represent the best of classical beauty, and liberally sprinkled with statues of famous residents of yesteryear that root locals' sense of civic pride in the city's history rather than its future.

Of course such an assessment would always have been unfair. Thessaloniki is an exciting place, it's something of a Mecca for shoppers and clubbers (I'm told) and there are lots of nice restaurants and museums. It's just that being an exciting place isn't necessarily the same as being a nice place. In the many conversations that Aspa and I have had about places that we'd like to live, Thessaloniki never got close – exciting perhaps, but unlivable.

On my first visit it struck me as a place despoiled by the motor car, where beautiful squares are crisscrossed by busy roads and where getting anywhere involved inching along at a glacial pace in a bus or a car, or walking in hot and polluted streets having to stop every thirty seconds to yield to the near stationary traffic. That was summer 2010, and I've been back three times since, usually just for two or three days at the end of a holiday.

The great thing about visiting a place every two years is that you notice the changes. And Thessaloniki is getting better, really amazingly better. The program Thessaloniki 2012, launched to celebrate 100 years since Thessaloniki was incorporated into Greece, sought to reimagine the city, to make more of its potential. You can read about it on the wikipedia page or, if you have an ever patient partner who speaks Greek and is willing to translate, on these slides

Streets are being pedestrianised, several small army barracks being turned into city parks, and bollards are being erected to protect pavements from parked cars. People love it. Even before the surface has been laid, you can see throngs of shoppers on this newly pedestrianised street.
Not only are there more people here, but they're more relaxed, they walk slower, they look in the shops and they sit in cafes.

The jewel in the crown though is the renovated paralia. Stretching 5.5km, this wide uninterrupted path runs right along the sea shore giving great views of the city and, on a clear day, out as far as mount Olympus far across the bay. Thirteen parks have been created and three thousand trees planted. There's even a long, wide, segregated bike path running through it. At one end a renovated port houses bars, a contemporary art museum and a port museum. It's just superb.

Of course not everything is fixed. Just as in Edinburgh, if you don't protect bike lanes with bollards or enforce parking restrictions then bike lanes become car parks. And having five lanes of traffic running through the middle of your city is always going to be unpleasant. Central parts of the Paralia are not wide enough, and as far as I know there's no news yet on whether the original plan to remove cars entirely from the central stretch of the sea front will be implemented. But Thessaloniki 2012 is a fifteen year program, and four years in (it started in 2010) things are looking pretty good. The mayor, who has done a lot of good things besides city planning, has been nominated for World Mayor 2014.

So is there a moral to the story? Well what Thessaloniki did was to hire some architects and city planners to produce a report into how one could make Thessaloniki fit for people, a place that people want to linger in. Then they began to implement the plan and are reaping the rewards. 

My city, Edinburgh, also commissioned international architects to look at how to make it a livable place. These architects also produced a report. The council have accepted the spirit of the report, and made quite a few positive changes, but there's still a vast gulf between what the report envisaged and what the council have done. Let's hope the Gehl report is implemented fully, Edinburgh reaps the rewards, and we can be celebrating Andrew Burns being nominated World Mayor 2015...

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A Funny Old Dream

I had a funny dream last night. I must have eaten too many mince pies or something.

It started with lots of people writing to their MSPs about what more spending on active travel would mean for them. Letters and emails from the 30% of children who want to cycle to school but can't because the conditions aren't right, from the adults who want to get fitter but find the roads too intimidating to walk or cycle, from the health professionals who are tired of treating the effects of too little exercise on a population whose towns and cities are laid out in a way to discourage them from traveling anywhere on their own two feet.

And my MSP, Jim Eadie, took up the cause, and told parliament about the great things that Edinburgh city council would do for active travel if they could get partial funding from the Scottish government. He told them about proposed links from Haymarket to the segregated cycle lane on George street that would make it possible for people arriving by train to do the last part of their commute by bike. He told them about the proposal to link the other end of George street to the bike lane on Leith Walk, making a continuous link from Haymarket down to the foot of the walk possible. And he told them about things that are already in motion in Edinburgh, such as family friendly routes from the canal to the meadows, and then on to the old Innocent railway path. MSPs from Glasgow chipped in to say that their local council has a commendable strategy for local transport that won't go anywhere without matched funding.

Some questioned whether it could be right to spend money on luxuries such as active travel when the NHS is in crisis, but my MSP replied that, as every good doctor knows, it's better to treat a cause than a symptom, and that inactivity is costing the Scottish NHS 94 million per year. Some argued that Scotland does not have the money to spend, but my MSP pointed out that the money being on one road project alone could be used to provide 10 pounds per head spending on active travel for the next sixty years! This isn't about the money available to Holyrood, it's about the choices that Holyrood makes. He showed them the Department for Transport statistics that show a 5.5 to 1 return on investment for building cycle lanes. Some argued that the responsibility lay not with the Scottish parliament but with Westminster, my MSP explained that transport was a devolved issue, and that, despite fine visions and soaring rhetoric, the current Scottish government finds its policies on active travel less progressive than those of Edinburgh city council, less progressive than those of Boris Johnson, less progressive than those of Westminster, less progressive even than those of The Times of London. He said that people love it when the SNP promises a greener, healthier Scotland, but that it needs to back up its promises with action.

And so, remarkably, the Scottish parliament pledged not only to properly fund investment in infrastructure for active travel for Scotland this year, but guaranteed that this funding would be maintained in the years to come. And councils were able to make long term plans, safe in the knowledge that money for investment in cycle lanes would be significant and sustained, and a great network of cycle lanes was built throughout the land.

Now this is where the dream started to get interesting. Because cycle lanes make the roads less intimidating for all users, the number of pedestrians increased dramatically. The roads became safer for everyone. And since bikes and buses no longer slowed each other down, bus journey times decreased, and congestion decreased for all road users, and so the air pollution levels in Scotland, which kill 2000 people a year, began to decrease. Bike lanes even made journey times shorter for car drivers.

Local shops found that, for the first time in a generation, it really was possible for large numbers of shoppers to get quickly and conveniently to the centre of town, and just as is happening on George street which has seen footfall up 9% since the bike lane was installed, sales grew. And so our city centres beat off the challenge of out of town shopping and internet sales, because they had once again become pleasant places to spend time and money.

And so the politicians were lauded for having taken such a simple, effective and astonishingly cheap step to build a better Scotland. Scotland was greener, happier and healthier, and my MSP was reelected with a large majority.

Anyway, funny old dream it was. I must have eaten too many mince pies or something.