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.