Picardy Place decision has wider implications

This is my response to Edinburgh City Council’s consultation on the redevelopment of Picardy Place. It is a local issue, but with wider implications:

Consultation on Picardy Place – with comments also on Leith Street proposals

I am writing in response to the Council’s revised proposals for Picardy Place. I also express my views on the future options for Leith Street, which are of course closely linked with the eventual layout that is adopted for Picardy Place and the redevelopment of the entire former St James Centre area. I also take this opportunity to make some comments on the wider policy and planning questions which arise as a result.

Picardy Place

The Council’s revised proposals for Picardy Place are a minor improvement on the original proposals. They remain, however, fundamentally flawed. The retention of a “gyratory” system, means that the opportunity to use the redevelopment of Picardy Place to transform that area into one which puts people and community first, and at the same time forms a fitting gateway into the city, will be lost.

The new proposals will lead to a loss in the space currently used as “public realm” east of St Mary’s RC Cathedral, and will create what will in effect be a giant “traffic island” surrounded by traffic on three sides which is likely to be unusable for public realm, because of difficulties of access across busy streets and also because of the poor air quality likely to result from being surrounded by traffic. The new proposals will also make it less convenient for pedestrians to cross, and offer no improvements to cycle routes across the site.

Instead, any revised scheme should extend the current “public realm” area, and make better use of that area. It should ensure that both pedestrians should be able to cross both York Place and Broughton Street in a direct manner. It should also provide segregated cycle routes to allow direct access up from York Place towards Leith Street, and from York Place towards Leith Walk. There are various options which have been suggested as delivering such a result, including that proposed by Sustrans.

Leith Street

The Council is also considering proposals for pedestrian and traffic layout at the southern end of Leith Street, into which much of the traffic from a redesigned Picardy Place will inevitably flow. The current proposals will remove bus lanes from that section of street, which will of course have an impact on public transport reliability, and also impact upon cyclists who are able to use those lanes.

The current temporary closure of that section of Leith Street has kept a pedestrian route open, however, and also provide a dedicated cycle route. It has also had the effect of substantially reducing traffic congestion at the east end of Princes Street.

Given that the Council’s proposals for Leith Street traffic will have a negative effect on both public transport and cyclists, it is not surprising that there have been calls for the current temporary removal of other traffic from that section of street to be made permanent, allowing only buses and cyclists (and of course pedestrians) to use it.

The difficulty with that proposal, however, is that the temporary closure has resulted in extensive traffic diversion, in particular in the Abbeyhill area. This has understandably been a matter of major concern to residents in that area, whose amenity, and for many residents quite probably their health, has been harmed by the extra traffic in that area.

Unless and until there is a substantial reduction in north-south traffic area in the wider area (which I discuss below), it does not appear to me that a full closure of Leith Street to general traffic could be introduced without unacceptable consequences for residents in other areas.

That does not mean, however, that measures could not be taken to ensure that buses and cyclists are given priority over general traffic at the southern end of Leith Street. Possible measures could be to provide at least a one-way southbound segregated cycle lane. A traffic light system at the Calton Road/Leith Street system could also be introduced to give buses and cyclists travelling southward priority over general traffic entering the southern section of Leith Street.

The wider picture

The fact that there are no “easy options” for both Picardy Place and Leith Street emphasises the wider policy and planning failure that there has been in the redevelopment of the whole east end area around the former St James Centre. It has become clear that a major factor pushing the Council towards a “gyratory” arrangement for Picardy Place is the agreement that it has entered into with the developers of the St James Centre site, the Scottish Government, and the latter’s Scottish Futures Trust. That agreement has included, amongst other things, a substantial increase in car parking at the site which will inevitably mean more traffic, which is why “traffic flow” issues (e.g. more cars) are limiting the Council’s options for Picardy Place. Furthermore, if the redevelopment of the St James Centre had allowed for (i) Leith Street to be wide enough to allow bus lanes to be retained, as well as wider pavements; and (ii) segregated cycle routes either at the side of Leith Street or through the redeveloped site, then the “bottle neck” at the top of Leith Street would not have been created.

That these problems have arisen seems to have been the result of decisions by all the public sector parties involved in the redevelopment of the area which had the effect of giving development and “improved traffic flow”) a higher priority over sustainable transport objectives (eg better provision for public transport and cyclists), pedestrians, and the local community. Given the stated policies of both the Scottish and local governments, this prioritisation of development and cars should not have taken place. Both need to conduct a fundamental examination of how they reached their decisions for the development of this area, with a view to ensuring that similar mistakes are not made in the future in other parts of Edinburgh.

As for the current proposals for the east end area, the public authorities need to re-examine the overall plans for the redevelopment to see if there can be some redesign to reduce extra traffic, to retain public transport priority, and to provide better routes alongside and through the development for pedestrians and cyclists.

The Council also needs to introduce measures to reduce north-south traffic across the city centre of Edinburgh. This requires an integrated traffic strategy for the area, but one measure which could be introduced relatively simply would be to extend the existing residents’ parking scheme northwards so as to cover the Leith area. This would be likely to encourage a shift from cars to public transport (and also cycling and walking) for those travelling to work in the Leith area, and would have the incidental effect of raising funds for investment in transport infrastructure. If experience elsewhere in Edinburgh is anything to go by, such an extension would also be welcomed by the majority of local residents in the area who would no longer find local streets used increasingly as free commuter car parks. Such an extension would not be the complete answer, but it could certainly be part of the solution.


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