Leith Walk consultation & redesign

Hinds, Orr and the rest of City of Edinburgh Council must seize “opportunity of a generation”

I ought to apologise for being so quiet on the Leith Walk consultation / redesign front.

Having seen the preliminary designs published at the tail end of last year and having been to the meatspace consultation event, I was frankly so disheartened that I couldn’t bring myself to comment in any depth.

It looked like it was going to be another “Quality Bike Corridor” episode, with large amounts of money and goodwill squandered for a very marginal improvement, little more than a reinstatement, and it really did seem that officials and councillors were not the least bit interested in making any visionary steps at all.

leithwalk-pic1

Of the £5.5m allocated, £3.2m was earmarked to resurface the road and £1.5m to re-flagstone the pavements, leaving just £800,000 for other interventions (based on a second hand breakdown – I’d welcome any correction).

As Edinburgh’s transport budget is just £20m, Londoners reading this should perhaps scale up to £500m to empathise with this level of waste.

However, we heard recently that the Council is to seek Sustrans funding to make improvements to cycling/walking on Leith Walk above and beyond the dubious efforts indicated in the preliminary plans.

With that in mind, I decided to sit down and grind something out after all.

What is wrong with Leith Walk?

As a daily user of the street I think I can sum this up pretty succinctly: it’s unpleasant.

To see just how unpleasant, please check out my accompany video article: “Welcome to Leith Walk: video style“.

We’re not just talking about cycling here. Leith Walk is enormously wide (in parts, perhaps a candidate for the widest street in Edinburgh?) but it consists entirely of signs and bins (on the pavement), rows of parked cars, a bus lane which is inevitably full of double parked cars and delivery vehicles, then 30mph+ “fast lanes” before a wide central reservation.

leithwalk-pic4

The junction layouts are as unfriendly as the rest of the street. It takes a horrendous amount of time to negotiate the area as a pedestrian, especially at the southern end where the two multi-lane unsignalled roundabouts (London Road and Picardy Place) demand lengthy detours or Spartan disregard for personal safety.

Leith Walk could easily be a thriving boulevard – it’s just a question of changing its primary purpose from a distributor expressway to a street where people are prioritised.

There are immediate benefits to be realised from slowing traffic down and shifting the emphasis towards pedestrians and cyclists – drastic reductions in noise, air pollution, hugely increased footfall for local businesses, just for a start.

On that last point – when people can’t easily cross the road, if they come to Leith Walk at all they are going to be inclined to stick to the side they’re on and neglect all the businesses opposite. Who wants to spend time on a four lane expressway of a street anyway?

Local business needs to be reassured and given leadership by a Council that isn’t afraid to reduce the amount of parking available on a 7-lane expressway to accommodate a modest cycle track.

leithwalk-pic2

Over 50% of Leith households do not own a car. The question the council needs to answer is this: why does Leith “Walk” have such poor pavements and almost non-existent provision for cyclists, while a relatively small proportion of people in cars enjoy an eye-popping seven lanes-worth of space (two parking, two travel in each direction, plus central reservation) set aside for them?

The Council desperately needs to take this opportunity to learn from the disaster of the Quality Bike Corridor (and the contrasting success of infrastructure projects elsewhere, such as the amazing redesign of Poynton in England) to do the following things:

  • a 20mph limit to make the street more compatible with pleasant use by residents, shoppers, and passers-by (two wheeled or otherwise)
  • a fully segregated cycleway the whole length of the street, prioritised at side roads
  • segregated cycle infrastructure to include negotiation of London Road and Picardy Place roundabouts without having to ride, at all, amongst lethal traffic flows.

We’re now hearing that London is stepping up to the plate with massive investment in liveable, cycleable streets. They are going to focus on doing just a few things right rather than piecemeal and marginal improvements which have manifestly failed to turn Edinburgh into a model cycling city.

With over £4 returned from every £1 invested in cycling infrastructure to the NHS alone (forget about all the other benefits for residents, local business and pedestrians of a pleasant, liveable street) this really should be a no-brainer.

A fully segregated cycleway is needed for the whole length of Leith Walk. It’s one of the widest streets in Edinburgh and we’re digging it all up anyway – no excuses.

Do you live, work or play near Leith Walk? Got an opinion? Please feel free to drop me a comment either way.

10 Comments

  1. When I visit Edinburgh I usually stay with a friend in Leith so I make the commute from Waverley down to the Links. Nowadays I always use Easter Rd – Leith Walk is just too horrible to cycle.

  2. Joseph Kerr

    “a 20mph limit to make the street more compatible with pleasant use by residents, shoppers, and passers-by (two wheeled or otherwise)”

    Utter nonsense! This will escalate pollution and cause frustration to road users. Leith Walk is one of the main arterial routes in the city.

    Its ridiculous to suggest people cant easily cross the road! There are dozens of crossing points and its simple to walk down one side and up the other?

  3. Dave

    Have you actually tried commuting on Leith Walk? It’s always going to be frustrating to drive through town because of all the other people trying to drive through town.

    Simple choices for our public spaces can make things massively better (or massively worse) for everyone else without really making any difference to the minority who are in cars.

    Fewer than 50% of households in Leith even choose to *own* a car. Remind me again why hard pressed local businesses, residents and others have to settle for shit streets to pander to you?

  4. Joseph Kerr

    I think you are off your head! I live near Leith Walk and agree its a shambles but it will be a lot worse once the cycle lobby get their way and a £3.6m cycle lane is introduced and traffic lights replace the roundabout. If you think ts frustrating at the moment to drive down it will be much worse when cycle lanes are introduced. Also, where is the tram going to fit if it ever gets completed to Leith? Do you really think creating more congestion and less parking facilities is good for business and people? I would prefere traffic to move freely and promptly rather than sitting in a massive traffic jam. Your own stats show buses are stationary almost half the time. It would be better if they were moving.

    Oh and by the way, from your videos it would appear you like to cycle down the middle of the road/ lane you are in. Why not follow the Highway Code and pull into the side unless you are overtaking and have a bit of consideration for other road users?

    I’m not expecting anyone to “pander” to me but you obviously are with this crazy selfish blog.

  5. Dave

    Even supposing all the parked cars were to be replaced with a cycle lane, why would that make driving down the street worse? If anything you’d think that moving people who prefer to bike from the carriageway to a cycle track might make things faster (I should note that since I have to leave extra time to drive to work versus biking, I’m not convinced).

    There’s also the obvious point that if people don’t feel the need to drive to Leith Walk there will be a lower absolute number of cars getting in the way. I think about this all the time when driving through town. Why wouldn’t I want to be in a small queue of cars with loads of people on bikes, instead of currently having to wait for multiple turns of the lights because they’re all in cars?

    As for local business: again, fewer than half of their customers even *own* a car, much less drive it to Leith Walk. There’s just no way you’ll convince me that making the street a nice place to visit at the expense of a few parking spaces is anything other than great for business, and I spend a lot of time with two small traders who would love this sort of thing to go ahead.

    As for riding position – you’re clearly not at all familiar with the government’s own published material as regards cycling best practice. Why should you be? So long as you don’t try to pass judgement without any idea how to ride safely it doesn’t bother me :)

    In the unlikely event that you’d like to become better informed on why the gutter death zone is not a good place to cycle and why the DfT explicitly endorses riding in the middle of the lane, you could pick up a copy of CycleCraft, published by HM Stationary Office. You can even buy it on Amazon.

  6. Joseph Kerr

    Ok, I must admit that I was unaware of the guidance re cycling in middle of road and can see the logic in it now. However, it seems the legislation is a little vague on this as cyclists are encouraged to be “considerate” to others on the road and the Highway Code does not actually have much detail on this. There are lots of examples of police berating cyclists for hogging the entire road with no regard to the queue of traffic behind them.

    TfL states:-

    “Ride assertively, away from the gutter. IF the road is too narrow for vehicles to pass you safely, it may be better to ride in the middle of the lane to prevent dangerous overtaking”.

    As for most of Leith not owning a car I don’t see that as particularly relevant as its a main route into Edinburgh and not just for locals.
    “Spending a lot of time with 2 traders who would love this sort of thing to go ahead” is not exactly representative of the population at large who are sick of the anti-car dogma in Edinburgh. Business suffers if people cannot visit in cars, thats why out of town shopping centres are preferred by many now than trying to visit Edinburgh. Not everyone has the luxury of being able to cycle.
    As for cycling being healthy there is evidence that cycling through a tunnel of carbon monoxide whilst hyperventilating is not beneficial to health! Perhaps you have showers at your office but a lot of people do not so would prefer not to arrive at work sweating at start of their day having cycled 2km uphill.

  7. Simon Geller

    Joseph, a few misconceptions here I fear. Top one is that cyclists slow down traffic – most short cycle journey are quicker than car journeys so how can that be true? Motorists squeeze past cyclists just to get caught up in the queue at the traffic junction further down the road, at which point the cyclists pass them again. Cycles take up a lot less space on the road so if you get more people cycling, there’s more space for the people who really do have to drive.
    Re Out of town shopping centres attracting people in cars – here’s an interesting thing. Most out of town shopping centres are actually pedestrianised. You park your car and then you walk. This makes for a more pleasant environment than a street where cars are double parked everywhere like Leith Walk. Provide parking where it’s needed and create a pleasant environment and people will come back to city centre shops. Take a trip to Holland and you’ll see this.
    I can assure that you that in this country, being able to cycle is not a “luxury”! Of course it is the cheapest way to travel other than walking.
    On traffic pollution, motorists are more exposed to this than cyclists. Motorists effectively sit in a stream of pollution which cyclists having a higher riding position are above. The research on this is available on the web if you Google it.
    Lastly, a regular cyclist will not sweat profusely on a two-mile km up Leith Walk.

  8. Joseph Kerr

    Good points Simon. I’m not sure I agree about car users being more exposed to pollution though. When outside on foot or on bike you can often ‘taste’/smell the pollutants, such as near Elm Row at rush hour. In a car though this is less noticeable I think and in my car there is an option to shut off air from the outside and recirculate the air inside the car.
    I agree that in Edinburgh cycling is often quicker but this is simply because of the ridiculous traffic systems we have of speed bumps, 1 way streets, traffic lights 100-200m apart and other traffic calming/pollution creating measures. In other cities cars will usually be far quicker than bikes.
    I agree that cyclists take up less road space but not if they insist in using the middle of the road. Most drivers are very considerate of cyclists and allow them plenty of space but by the same token there are too many cyclists blatantly taking up the whole road when they could easily pull over a little to allow for safer overtaking.

  9. Dave

    “There are lots of examples of police berating cyclists for hogging the entire road with no regard to the queue of traffic behind them.”

    Unfortunately very few police officers (and even fewer traffic officers) are familiar with the government’s own guidance… just one of those things that will inevitably change as it becomes more normal and people start to understand it.

    Take my own commute which includes the bridges, Leith Walk and Great Junction street. It takes less time to bike it, uphill, than to drive. So if you think it through, it’s not easy to argue that a cyclist is being inconsiderate, when if you get past, you are still travelling at a slower average speed. It just *seems* like you’re being held up (which I know is enough!)

    As for why you might not be let past when it seems like there’s room, here’s a simple example to show why it’s not that easy:

    The guy riding the bike may know that if he moves over it would be safe for one or two cars to pass before he reaches the next parked car (or whatever) but the problem is, after the first car overtakes people just keep coming and coming and suddenly you’ve either got to slam into the back of a parked car, throw yourself onto the pavement, or move out and risk getting mown down by yet another chancer who’s trying to scrape past.

    On the scales, being alive and having the driver behind get a bit annoyed is *much* better than getting mown down. I think if motorists understood that they’d make a big jump forward. A good cyclist moves out to block you passing because if he didn’t, every few days a truck half overtakes him and turns left, and there’s no way you getting to the next red light 2 seconds sooner is worth more to him when he’d just rather stay alive.

  10. Simon Geller

    If you had the segregated cycle routes that are being proposed by Dave and by Spokes Lothian and assuming these are built to Dutch standards so cyclists are happy to use them then these conflicts would not arise.

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