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The CILT Annual Scottish Political Event: Professor Scott Arthur, Chair of the Transport and Environment Committee on Edinburgh City Council - Wednesday 26 April 2023

Professor Scott Arthur, Chair of the Transport and Environment Committee on Edinburgh City Councild

Professor Scott Arthur, Chair of the Transport and Environment Committee on Edinburgh City Council

© Scott Arthur

For Scott Arthur, a Labour councillor for a ward on the city's southern outskirts, it has been an unexpected privilege that when his party formed a minority administration following the May 2022 election he found himself become the Council's Transport and Environment Convener.

Achievements to which he thus fell heir included the completion of work to refurbish the North Bridge designed by Sir William Arrol, and he found it fantastic to think that he was helping hand on for the next hundred years something that had been achieved by the creator of the Forth Bridge. He was also looking forward to the day when it would again carry trams.

Edinburgh City Centre played a vital role for the Scottish economy by drawing tourists here, but presented particular challenges owing to its narrow winding streets which created problems for pedestrians. With a population of just over half-a-million, the city contained arterial routes that stretched south to the bypass and north to the Firth of Forth. One of his first duties on taking up office was to join the then Scottish Transport Minister in launching the city's Low Emission Zone. This event served as a reminder to him as to the importance of collaborating across party boundaries so as to take projects over the finishing line, drawing on the hard work put in by his predecessors.

Uncertainties now faced by Edinburgh included post-pandemic recovery, where car usage was fully restored to previous levels but public transport lay still around 85%. Population growth had to be absorbed, with land set aside for up to 37,000 new houses over the next ten years or so, and their residents had to be accommodated equitably and in a manner that respected climate-change targets while providing for the mobility of all. Brexit and the war in Ukraine had helped drive a cost-of-living crisis, and transport was part of the city's offer in seeking to secure the inward investment needed to sustain its economy. By any reckoning Edinburgh was among the top ten most congested cities in the UK, but Time Out had recently found it second in the UK, fifth in Europe and thirteenth best in the world for the quality of its public transport in recognition that with 350,000 bus trips daily Lothian Buses provides a destigmatised service that isn't just for those without a car.

In helping the city transition towards a sustainable future, account has to be taken of its five-dimensional party politics, of chronic underfunding over many years for basic services such as road maintenance, and of the realisation that for many people change is painful. However, there is a growing recognition that if we just switched the money to fixing potholes, the lost income from investments would soon leave us just as strapped for cash on this and other fronts. An emerging consensus on his committee of what needs to be done has been reflected in the recent avoidance the need to put things to a vote. The impact of change on people's mental health is however not to be doubted, and they deserve to be listened to.

George Street illustrates interlinkages between transport and economic development. The street has effectively been functioning as a giant carpark, but some trade has been lost to the new St James Quarter. Soon the street will be on the City Centre West East Link active travel corridor, and now it seems that there is general recognition that the Street should be encouraging tourists to stay longer and spend more, thus generating higher-quality jobs. So the main talking-point has become whether there should be trees!

The term Low Traffic Neighbourhood has become stigmatised so a different team might have to be used going forward, however there is no doubt as to the merit in areas like Leith Links or Corstorphine of trying to deter motorists from taking a short cut through residential streets for the sake of saving fifteen seconds or so. Gorgie and Portobello are being promoted as 20-minute neighbourhoods for which funding will have come through Sustrans.

Trams to Newhaven are now undergoing daytime testing with a view to starting in the next few weeks carrying initially community groups and then fare-paying passengers. This is the unfinished end of the original line on whose cost overrun and slippage an inquiry has yet to report, and completing on time and within budget shows that Edinburgh can now be trusted - which can only augur well for getting support from the Scottish Government for future projects to build lines south from Granton towards the Royal Infirmary and Dalkeith and west from Ingliston to Newbridge. These would be major projects on which the Council will soon be consulting about route options in the knowledge that tram extensions have already been endorsed in principle by the Scottish Government's recent Strategic Transport Projects Review.

Trams are great, but buses are the most important element of public transport because they can potentially go virtually anywhere. Councillors shouldn't be dictating routes, but options are under consideration for orbital services and for whether buses should run to - but not through - the city centre. Scott was not in favour of changing city centre routing unless there were clear benefits to passengers. The Council's main role as Lothian Buses' owner should be to cherish and support the service, encouraging new technology and managing parking and loading on main roads so as to improve journey-times.

Support for active travel is running at £1bn, of which a quarter each is for cycling or walking while the other half is for schemes that provide for both - that is because the money comes through Sustrans, but it would be better separated out so as better to create networks focused on schools and to address needs of those with mobility difficulties, for example by providing dropped kerbs. Not all streets can meet every need, so there might be a need to separate out their functions. Local consultations can be very helpful in understanding issues as seen by for example the mobility-impaired. It could be shown that those arriving by car might account for a relatively small proportion of spend, however in today's economic circumstances would many neighbourhoods be able to afford losing even that amount? Creation of accessibility forums can help define issues, eg visually-impaired people trying to cope with the redesign of Leith Walk.

Park-and-ride will require expansion if our roads are not to be choked by motorists driving in from new developments. Income from congestion-charging could be shared with other Councils to allow them to invest, and an effort could made to develop sites as multifunctional hubs with retail or logistical functions.

The benefit of Low Emission Zone will be felt when enforcement is permitted from 2024, but no local variations can be permitted. Opportunities may arise in coming years for working with developers on making integral provision for public transport and active travel, with neighbouring authorities on bus priority and park-and-ride, and with the Scottish Government on contributing to strategic transport projects in the national interest.

Report by John Yellowlees. Photograph by Scott Arthur.


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