Edinburgh’s highways department: stuck in the 1990s?

What the hell’s going on up there? I’m talking to you, Edinburgh!

With all the hoo-hah, pressure from the local cycling campaign and Pedal on Parliament, I was expecting Edinburgh council to get the message and produce some really great designs for Leith Walk. Instead, the “enhanced” design is full of ASLs, door-zone cycle paths and give way markings.

Next year Scotland will be voting on independence, yet the Scottish capital’s highway engineers remain staunchly loyal to the old-fashioned designs of the Department for Transport here in London.

A photograph of Leith Walk in Edinburgh, showing the wide road and unused space in the middle.

Leith Walk in 2012. Now, shall we use that dead space in the middle of the road or shall we keep it? (Photo: Google Maps)

Now, I don’t live in Edinburgh – I haven’t even visited in a year – so maybe I should keep my big nose out. But I think any road scheme which expects people on bikes to overtake stopped buses or ride in a painted door-zone cycle lane will not attract people to use the bike. Modal shift will not occur when scary manoeuvres are designed in.

Myself and my partner – let’s call her Pavlov’s Dog – are good barometers for cycling. We really want to cycle more, as we really enjoy cycling! It really doesn’t take much to get us on our bikes. So when we look at a road and say “ugh, I wouldn’t ride there” then you can bet your bottom dollar that it’s not going to tempt anybody from their car.

Edinburgh council’s plans for Leith Walk are a good example of this. It fails our test.

A section of the new Leith Walk design which doesn't even have a cycle lane for north-bound bike riders

The 1990s called, they want their road design back.

I did have some hope for this design, as there’s a cycle-path for travelling southbound (uphill). But it only exists for a section of the road, and don’t be expecting to get any momentum as you’ll have to give way at the junction with the minor road of Albert Street! It looks like the cycle path is right up against parked cars too, without any buffer space. So it’s in the door zone, and will be blocked every time someone wants to get in or out of their car.

So who is it for? Confident cyclists who make up the vast majority of bike users in the UK will just stick to the road anyway. Why would they use the cycle path if they have to give way constantly, as opposed to the road where they have priority at minor junctions? So it’s not for existing cyclists – they’re cycling anyway.

But it’s not for people like me, either. Even if I did use the short section of cycle path to go one way, my return journey would mean riding in the bus-and-taxi lane, or the advisory (not even solid-line) cycle lane. At some points on the route there isn’t even a cycle lane!

Another section of Edinburgh council's Leith Walk redesign which doesn't even have a cycle lane

Yeah, this is going to get little Timmy riding to school. “Just take the lane, kiddo!”

There’s a pointless two-way cycle path at the southern end of Leith Walk which seems to fizzle out at both ends. I’m not sure what a bike user is meant to do if using this – cross the road and join the buses and taxis? If I was happy to do that, wouldn’t I be on the road already anyway?

And why have they kept the pointless central median strip? That’s valuable road-space! Why do vehicles have priority over pedestrians at minor junctions? It’s legal, apparently, for the pavement to continue across the junction. This should be the new standard which we demand.

A section of Edinburgh council's Leith Walk redesign where the road is extremely wide, yet the cycling provision is poor.

This junction is so wide! Why is there only a puny advisory cycle lane heading north? And why all those give way markings on the cycle path?

So this design is a fudge which pleases nobody. It’s crap.

Looking at this plan, I suspect Edinburgh council is trying to do things on the cheap.

It should be rejected by anybody connected to cycling and walking groups.


Edinburgh council may have some dreadful planners, but they have some top-notch PR people. Somehow they’ve managed to spin this design as giving priority to cyclists and pedestrians. Ha! Are we looking at the same plans here?

Greener Leith mysteriously “welcome” these second-rate plans, and Sustrans “strongly backs” them too. Oh, for fucks sake!

There is a public session to view the designs on Tuesday July the 23rd, from 2pm to 8pm, at McDonald Road Library. I suggest that anybody in Edinburgh who doesn’t feel that walking and cycling are the priority in this design (and they clearly aren’t) should go voice their concerns clearly.


Mini-update: I’ve just been reading the “City Cycling Edinburgh” forum discussion about Leith Walk, and I found this insightful comment from ‘CalumCookable’:

“Leith Walk has got to be the widest street in Edinburgh – if we can’t achieve a piece of high-quality infrastructure here, then where can we achieve it? Edinburgh pretends to want to quintuple the rate of cycling in the city in less than 7 years – if it’s not possible to achieve a piece of high-quality infrastructure now, then when will it be?”

He’s quite right. This design proves that Edinburgh council’s plans to increase the cycling rate five-fold in seven years are a complete and utter lie.

I can’t understand why others on the forum are defending this design. It might be better than the previous version, but it’s still crap. Are people just too tired to argue any more? Will Edinburgh accept crumbs from the council’s table yet once more? If so, it looks like people in Edinburgh will still be going round in circles in another 35 years time.


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15 responses to “Edinburgh’s highways department: stuck in the 1990s?

  1. CalumCookable

    Ha, thanks for quoting me! I share your astonishment that these designs could be “welcomed” by anyone who wants to work towards mass cycling The position of Sustrans and Spokes on this issue is truly breathtaking. I am reminded of the legendary Freewheeler’s observation that “a major obstacle to the development of mass cycling is cycling campaigners with their pathetically stunted vision and their passive acceptance of infrastructure which is complete crap”. Hear, hear!

    This is not to say, of course, that the council in Edinburgh can be excused of their responsibilities for this farce. There is no excuse for such poor design, especially not now that the Dutch model is being looked at in other cities. Of course, this is the council that wants to ban cycling eastbound on Princes Street. The 10% overall modal share target (originally 15%, by the way, before they shifted the goalposts and said this was only for the *commuting* modal share) is a grand-scale delusion that has no hope of coming anywhere close to being achieved – and you can take that to the bank.

    • No worries Calum, I thought both your posts on that forum were spot on.

      Despite all the back-slapping, the fact remains that Leith Walk will still have six lanes dedicated to motor traffic – 2 parking, 2 bus-and-taxi, 2 general. And this is going to create a greener Leith somehow?! What’s the point in all these organisations if they’re going to accept crap like this?

      If the council don’t have the guts to remove some of the parking or restrict car access, then so be it – but let’s not paint this as a great modern scheme. I’m not going to join in the chorus of those saying “ah well, it’s better than nothing” and I’m pleased to see that I’m not alone!

  2. Sustrans are well meaning and I like them a lot, but I think someone needs to point out the error of their support to their boss – they don’t have any contracts with Edinburgh City Council do they?

    • Aworkey

      Yes, Sustrans do have links with the council – they have Sustrans “staff” embedded in the council cycling dept on secondment. This explains a lot. The cycling “dept” is the one responsible for the catalogue of cycle “infrastructure” in Edinburgh of recent years (the “quality” bike corridor, their “action plan”, the “family” network, encouraging pavement cycling…). Sustrans can’t criticise cos they are part of the problem.
      Thanks for the high-res -maps. It appears that to join one of the segregated paths you have to do a nasty manoevre and go across the pedestrian crossing. Genius.

  3. Ally Tibbitt

    Hi, the part Greener Leith is “welcoming” is the fact that CEC have finally listened – and acted on probably the majority of things that most local people could agree on in this document:

    That document grew out of a lengthy community engagement process and thus to some extent feels like the limit of any ‘mandate’ we may have as a locally based organisation. It’s important to folk at Greener Leith to try to hold together the rough consensus that exists amongst the groups who signed up to that document, not least because it has sometimes seemed like the council have tried to play “divide and rule” between different groups, in an effort to avoid spending money.

    If you actually read to the bottom of the more recent Greener Leith blog post that you link to here you’ll note that we remain critical of some parts of the new design – and we raise many of the issues that you highlight too, such as disappearing bike lanes, the inclusion of advisory lanes and so on.

    However, it is a huge step forwards from where we were even a couple of weeks ago. So I’m not sure it’s such a bad thing to “welcome” that response whilst continuing to try to refine the design further.

    If Greener Leith constantly opposed and rejected every proposal we could have very well ended up with no improvement at all from the pre-trams layout.

    • Hi Ally,

      Thanks for taking the time to respond. As I’m sure you’re aware, the article was aimed at Edinburgh council rather than Greener Leith.

      Few people read past the fold unfortunately, it’s an age-old truism. Though I did read the whole article, yet the council seemingly didn’t as the headline they’re sending out is “everyone agrees on this design“.

      And that’s the danger of “welcoming” such plans. As soon as you’ve said that word the press officers hit ‘send’ and it’s now being sold as a done deal.

      As an aside, I’d much prefer to give schemes a grade rating. The original would be an E at best, this new design a C- overall (though still an E in places). Leith Walk deserves to be an A+, especially if the council is serious about its goal of a 10% cycling rate by 2020.

      I really think you’re being too kind to the council here. Single-stage crossings should be standard on a road like this anyway – it’s 2013, not 1963! Is that such a victory? They’re really not something we should have to fight for.

      Why shouldn’t pedestrians get priority at minor junctions? This is legal under UK law.

      Where will the 5x growth in cycling come from? Edinburgh has already exhausted its pool of vehicular cyclists, and this road isn’t going to encourage anybody else onto a bike.

      It’s a tired old design with a few bones thrown to pacify the campaigners. I’m glad it has “DRAFT” printed across it, as the final design needs to look very different.

      Is there really a risk that the council would say “oh you’re slagging off our dangerous painted cycle lanes, so to teach you a lesson we’re going to put the two-stage pig-pen crossings back in!”?

      I’m glad to hear that Greener Leith is still pushing for further improvements on this scheme, because as far as I can see there’s still a long way to go.


      • You really don’t need to persuade me that the design could be improved, and needless to say, I would like not to have to “fight” for any of this.

        However, bringing everyone – beyond dedicated cycle and active travel campaigners – to a point where there is a bit of consensus over what constitutes “good/safe” street design is a bit more of a complex proposition.

        Some people have such low expectations after many, many years of never ending tram mess, that there is a great deal of mistrust and pressure on council officials to “just fix the road as quickly as possible.” And that could easily have meant no attempt at a TRO, far more limited investment and a far more dangerous road design.

        You ask whether there is really a risk that the council would say: “oh you’re slagging off our dangerous painted cycle lanes, so to teach you a lesson we’re going to put the two-stage pig-pen crossings back in!”

        Well, perhaps you’re underestimating how conservative with a small “c” Edinburgh can be when it comes to these sorts of projects.

        The risk of that happening may be diminishing after this latest announcement, but without positive encouragement of council officials, and an attempt at broad based place making I’d argue that there really was (is?) a risk of a more dangerous, cheaper, “business as usual” design getting plonked in.

        So, I hope you can understand that there is also a risk to “not welcoming” plans too. We took a calculated risk in this instance, on the basis that the soundbite that percolates into the Scottish Government, who hold the purse strings, would make it more likely that they release the cash that’s needed.

        We might be wrong on that. We’ll just have to see.

        And in the meantime, thanks for pointing out a couple of details we’d missed in this post. We’re just drafting a more considered response to the “enhanced” design proposals and we’ll probably include the issues you raise.

        • Hi Ally,

          Thanks for your response. Sorry for my delayed reply.

          Thanks for explaining the political game which Greener Leith has to play with the council, I do hope that it works out well in the end. Though I worry that praising something half-baked means they think it’s fine, and can maybe even water it down a bit before installation. We have a long history of asking for crap-but-achievable in Britain, rather than sticking to our guns and demanding the best.

          But my focus here is on crap and dangerous designs, mainly for cycling but also for walking. And having a council present such a dreadful concept, there was simply no way I could ignore it and pretend it was in any way acceptable. It may be an improvement on previous plans, but it’s still crap, it’s still 95% “business as usual”. They’ve thrown us a bone and are expecting us to happily gnaw away.

          It seems to me that your trump card is Edinburgh council’s very own target of 10% cycling modal share by 2020 (i.e. six-and-a-half years from now). They can’t really intend to get there using painted on-road cycle lanes. If Leith Walk doesn’t have cycle tracks along its’ length, then that 10% figure is worthless.

          Similarly, if the minor side-road junctions aren’t treated as gateways (i.e. with the path continuing across the junction mouth) then the council is prioritising driving over walking yet again.

          Anyway, I’m sure you’ve got better things to do than debate with an anonymous cat on the Internet! So I’ll leave it there and wish you the best of luck.

          All the best,

  4. Jitensha Oni

    The “little Timmy” diagram (at interesection with Brunswick St) is interesting – I presume the pink stripe at the footway edge on the right hand side is meant to be a cycle path. If so, I then presume all the street lamps, bollards, post boxes, etc are going to be removed when it is made, e.g. at


    Otherwise, it’s going to be a classic Cycle Facility of the Month.

  5. Aworkey

    This design, pure pants.

    And it’s welcomed by campaigners – says it all. Another utterly missed opportunity.

  6. Nico (@nfanget)

    So far almost all UK cycle infrastructure (with a very few exceptions) is so terrible I suggest we use the Bristol Stool Scale to rate it (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bristol_stool_scale). As long as the proposed plans can be rated on that scale, it isn’t good enough.

    • Jim Moore

      Nice attempt at funny but the BSS isn’t a linear ranking scale. From the Wiki “Types 1–2 indicate constipation, with 3 and 4 being the ideal stools (especially the latter), as they are easy to defecate while not containing any excess liquid, and 5, 6 and 7 tending towards diarrhoea.”

      I suggest a BSS Type 3 cycle path would be like those found all throughout the Netherlands, and the bumpier Type 4 paths more representative of Copenhagen’s.

      • Nico (@nfanget)

        I suggest that even types 3 and 4, the “ideal” stools, are still crap, and that you can’t polish a turd. The NL and DK state of the art designs do not even have a place on that chart, because they are a completely different paradigm, and not crap.

  7. Pingback: Football-pitch junctions | The Alternative Department for Transport

  8. Gosh, it’s painful isn’t it? Well, just one thing to say – the council is bound to ‘protect’ the line of the tram route, should it be extended to run along Leith Walk in the future. This is one reason why they aren’t ripping up the whole street layout and making it an 8 lane cycle way (and why they are keeping the useless bit in the middle). The limited budget is another problem – but if you ask me, they should design it right, and then phase the implementation in line with funding. That would be better than delivering a half-baked scheme…

    Oh no, I’m starting to get into this… time to go.

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