In a vote which went down to the wire, Edinburgh City Council has voted to open city centre bus lanes to other traffic with the exception of peak commuting hours.
The city will also become the first Scottish city to permanently open its bus lanes to motorcyclists.
Opposition to the proposal has snowballed since its announcement last August. Particularly vocal amongst its critics have been cycling and pedestrian campaign groups. Lothian cycle campaign Spokes, pedestrian advocacy group Living Streets and environmental organisation Friends of the Earth Scotland all lodged formal objections.
Head of Living Streets Scotland, Stuart Hay, said: “We are deeply disappointed. This sends out a wrong and inconsistent message on where Edinburgh is on sustainable transport.
“We would anticipate a lot of the bus lanes being parked up at weekends and pedestrians struggling to cross the road. It contrasts badly with the more progressive moves in Glasgow to deter people from bringing their vehicles into the city.”
Scottish Green MSP and co-convenor for the Scottish Parliament’s cross-party group on cycling Alison Johnstone claimed the move would significantly worsen conditions for cyclists with increased noise and pollution.
Considering that parts of Edinburgh’s city centre accounted for half of the top 20 cycle commuting areas in Scotland, there is definitely grounds to contest the change.
A Case for Cars
While campaigners like Stuart Hay and Alison Johnstone will decry the decision on ideological or ecological grounds, many will praise it for its fundamental practicality.
How often have you sat in a traffic jam – hundreds of cars packed into one lane – while the odd bus glides passed in an otherwise empty lane?
It happens to me on a nearly daily basis. During non-peak hours, the volume of public transport sometimes simply doesn’t warrant a dedicated lane.
In Glasgow the bus lane policy reflects this variable demand. Many stretches of bus lane on Great Western Road, for example, only operate between 07:30 and 09:30 and from 16:00 to 18:30.
This keeps cars flowing freely when it’s traffic is light and public transport rumbling on when traffic’s heavy. It just makes sense.
Where the problems lie, however, is in inconsistent application of the rules. As I said, many Great Western Road bus lanes are time-limited but if turn up onto Queen Margaret Drive, you hit a 24-hours-a-day bus lane.
Yes, they paint the lanes but our roads are already such a patchwork of different surface materials that many simply won’t notice.
If you move into the city centre, you find a completely different system altogether. Bus lanes operate a 7-7-7 system, running seven days a week from 07:00 to 19:00, which many claim is the ideal compromise between the two extremes.
While Edinburgh’s decision to cut away permanent bus lanes might not be a perfect solution to the problem of congestion, it creates a significantly simplified system. It clearly sets the rules out and makes sure people know when they can use bus lanes and when they can’t. Importantly, it lets motorists keep their concentration on the road as they aren’t constantly searching for stupidly small signs. To me, it feels like a step in the right direction.