In Praise of the Pedestrian
There was something Dorothy Wordsworth didn’t like about Grasmere when she moved there over two hundred years ago. Too much traffic. All those carts going to Keswick market on Tuesdays and back on Thursdays.
Recently I have taken a snapshot traffic count outside Leith Library, at the east end of Duke Street, and on Bernard Street bridge over 15-minute periods on different days and times.
Shockingly, a touch over half of vehicles were private cars with only the driver. Private cars with more than one occupant were 20%, a similar percentage to trade vehicles. Taxis and buses together were around 7%, and bikes and motorbikes almost didn’t register.
As far as accidents are concerned, the Highway Code puts pedestrians as the most vulnerable road user, and therefore the most protected. But it’s not just about accidents – it’s the whole environment.
We are all pedestrians. A pedestrian is the basic, irreducible unit of being out and about. Our safe space – pavements – are narrow enough. They are lined with many thousands of pounds-worth of parked cars that must not be touched. Engine fumes, tyre pollution, and noise: it adds up to an unfriendly and unhealthy environment.
Edinburgh council has just announced the introduction of a Low Traffic Neighbourhood (LTN) in Leith. It stretches north from the Foot of Leith Walk, westwards along Junction Street to Lindsay Road, and eastwards to Salamander Street to include the Links (see image).
The aim is to make the place safer and more pleasant for pedestrians and cyclists, tackle air pollution, and help cut climate emissions.
Phase 1 is to make a cycle path from Henderson Street, over Sandport Bridge and down Dock Street. Not much, but it should be useful for Victoria Quay and Ocean Terminal.
The centre-piece of Phase 2 will be the pedestrianisation (keeping the cycle path) of Sandport Bridge. There is nice riverside access from upstream and downstream and I’m sure it will quickly become a favourite place to meet up and enjoy being outdoors in the town centre.
The south end of Constitution Street will be closed to everything except trams and pedestrians, and there will be a bus gate at Links Place. None of this will reduce the overall volume of traffic, which will have to find other routes.
We will have sympathy for the residents on the streets that will take more traffic, but I’m not sure how much sympathy the car drivers will have.
Controlled Parking Zones (CPZ) are also being rolled out. Some car owners are furious that they will pay for a permit to park outside their own homes, but the intention is to deter drivers from elsewhere parking somewhere convenient for their destination or the next stage of their journey.
Deterrence won’t make much difference. Only when car owners see that bus and taxi passengers and cyclists are travelling fine, and much cheaper, will minds and habits start to change. That will need a much improved and enlarged public transport system, accessed by out-of-town park and ride schemes.
This is the battle at street and community level, but it’s part of a larger conflict. The oil and car industries are not the first to promote their products, well aware of – but strenuously denying – their harmful effects. Backed by the oil giants, cars are aggressively marketed as desirable tokens of autonomy and power.
It’s often hard to find fault with any particular car owner or journey, but the net effect has to be recognised.
To live within a 20-minute walk of the six core social functions: living, working, supplying, caring, learning and enjoying is becoming a well-established ambition. It is also intended as a response to the climate crisis.
It is beyond disappointing that the very idea has been trivialised and weaponised. In the House of Commons recently Nick Fletcher MP (Con) called it ‘a socialist conspiracy’ that would ‘take away personal freedoms’ and cause ‘untold economic damage’.
If Mr Fletcher insists on his freedom to run a car as much as he likes and park it where it suits him, how does he value my freedom to live in a safe, healthy environment and, on behalf of my children and people throughout the world, to play a part in averting a climate catastrophe?
This is basically a clash between unbridled capitalism and libertarianism on one hand and public health on the other. Who gives Mr Fletcher the trump card?
This larger context is beyond the remit of the city council. But we can do things locally. The city of Ghent in Belgium has banished all non-essential motorised vehicles from the centre.
The council’s first responsibility is to its residents, and we are looking for some robust political ambition and leadership. In return, politicians need inspiration and support.
Maybe a ‘Low Traffic Neighbourhood’ should be re-named a ‘Community Living Area’. Whatever, let’s make this work for all of us, and go on to the next level. The ghost of Dorothy Wordsworth is right behind us. ■
3 vehicles illegally parked, Leith Walk