Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Edinburgh gets what it voted for

It comes as no surprise to me that Edinburgh has made it into the top ten list of congested cities.  That was, after all, what Edinburgh's Labour councillors, supported only by the Greens, said would happen when the referendum on congestion charging in the capital was so soundly defeated in 2005.

People's attitudes to congestion charging bear many similarities to those with the council tax freeze, which I posted on recently. If you ask people if they want to pay £2 to drive into the capital, they will invariably say no. Ask them to consider the alternatives and perhaps a different answer would have been forthcoming.

Yet that detail was what was so clearly missing from the debate at the time. Would people mind deaths resulting from emergency services being gridlocked? Did businesses appreciate the financial benefit of cutting half an hour off a cross city journey? No, it was all about a £2 charge - with opponents omitting to remind us that it would only operate during weekday peak travel periods. One stark example of the level of debate I recall was the alleged disincentive to visit restaurants in the city; yet during weekends and evenings when people would wish to do so, the charge would not have operated. And even if it did, would £2 added to the cost of a meal really have put people off?

It was also clouded by political parties which saw the way the popular vote was swinging. Congestion charging was Liberal Democrat policy, but true to form, they opposed it in this instance. Even the Scottish Socialists sided with the Tories on this one.

Midlothian's Labour councillors, in their usual nineteen sixties mindset, opposed their Edinburgh colleagues, but were at least consistent in their desire to encourage as many of its residents to drive into Edinburgh as possible, helped along by the A68 Dalkeith bypass.

There is no doubt that the Edinburgh trams project has been badly mishandled. It could have and should have been built in its entirety and within budget, as other cities throughout Europe have ably demonstrated. However, leaving the mismanagement aside, congestion charging would have provided a financial boost to extend the network out to Midlothian, or even with the current scenario, allowed it to be completed without risking the independence of Lothian Buses.

Instead, we have no trams, impending gridlock, and a consequent threat to the economic well-being of the city and its environs.

Even so, is congestion charging the answer to congestion? Especially as London, with its well established scheme, is still ahead of us in the congestion league. Using financial incentives to change behaviour only changes the behaviour of the less well off, and perhaps they have a better reason to drive into Edinburgh that the rich. Allowing, say, only vehicles with odd/even number plates into the city on alternate days doesn't hit those who can afford two cars.

In the light of this, and a clear dislike for the public to delve more deeply into debate, perhaps the answer is to restrict everyone's access by banning all cars from certain areas and pedestrianising more widely.  Forcing people out of their cars in this way would encourage greater use of an already excellent public transport system in the city, whilst ensuring all car owners are treated equally, whether rich or not.

The alternative it seems, is that we steadily move up from seventh in the league, and people are eventually coaxed out of their cars, quite simply because it's faster to walk.


  1. I lived in Edinburgh at the time of the vote, read the bumf coming through the door and voted yes. It just didn't seem that difficult to understand, if you do nothing, it would get worse, unless something like a recession or fuel prices going rabid happened came along to change things. Of course if it had gone ahead and the trams went to the furthest they could what a tremendous difference it would make. Not insightful I know, but grrr it's flipping irritating that this is the way things pan out. Sorry don't have any of the sign on options, Callum

  2. I was for the congestion charging scheme at the time, when I wasn't a car owner. I am a car owner now and would still be in favour. Edinburgh is a city ruined by cars.