CommonSpace columnist David Carr looks at the proposed Leith tram extension and asks what it might mean for the people of Edinburgh
THE proposed Leith tram extension is briefly on hold. Labour leaders on the SNP-Labour coalition council want to press ahead , arguing benefits for the capital’s economy.
The SNP says that the financial case is not robust – and that the council is already making funding cuts, including a massive 2,000 job losses.
The decision is not delayed for long. Now is the time to ask: will the infrastructure support an economy that puts all of us first?
I have talked to Edinburgh residents. They all say the same: we don’t use the tram. It doesn’t go anywhere useful. The buses are great. We use Google Maps to navigate.
I have only recently become intimate with Edinburgh. One glorious day in summer I discovered that I could park my car at the Ingliston park and ride and zip into Princes Street without having to navigate buses. I was an instant convert. I even felt green – until I remembered I could have come from Glasgow by bus or train.
Since, I have talked to Edinburgh residents. They all say the same: we don’t use the tram. It doesn’t go anywhere useful. The buses are great. We use Google Maps to navigate.
I have also got to know Leith Walk, the route of the proposed extension. There are buses aplenty. It’s easy – and pleasant – to walk along. I’ve discovered Edinburgh’s excellent, well-signposted pedestrian infrastructure. The water of Leith walkway was a revelation.
So, in a very short time – I’ve stopped using the tram.
Business leaders, we are told, favour the extension. Which business leaders?
The tram is really great for zipping between places where we can shop – The Gyle, Princes Street and – with the extension – Ocean Terminal. All are well served by buses. Here, people can consume more, and give more money to large corporations outwith Edinburgh which contribute only marginally to the local economy.
Yes – ‘trickle down’ is a thing to an extent. Some parts of Leith are thriving. But the net effect of shopping centres is to suck money out of local economies.
I’ve discovered Edinburgh’s excellent, well-signposted pedestrian infrastructure. So, in a very short time – I’ve stopped using the tram.
We are also told that the extension will enable waterfront development. More shopping centres? Waterfronts are a valuable resource and we might question the best way to use them. Would parks meet Edinburgh’s needs better?
If you ask local small businesses, you get a different picture. A hairdresser on Leith Walk tells me of the disruption from previous roadworks. Customers told her that it was hard to see her because they couldn’t find a place to park.
Pedestrian routes were severely affected. Many small businesses folded under the pressure. They are starting to come back – empty shops are being let and Leith Walk is developing a quirky feel.
But enabling works are to go ahead – despite the delay. ‘Just as we started to relax they are talking about doing it all over again.’
The trams will certainly gentrify Leith Walk. Is this what we want?
Light rail systems are said to bring benefits for regeneration. They open up corridors of housing and related businesses along their route. People move in. House prices go up. Businesses move in to serve new, affluent residents.
Where do the previous residents go? Or the businesses that support them? Perhaps we need to consider whether our investment priority is to turn affordable homes into unaffordable – or should we just build affordable homes?
The thinking on the benefits of the proposed extension has perhaps been based on certain economic assumptions. The delay – it is only a short delay – gives us an opportunity to question these.
The green argument for trams puzzles me. Yes – there’s an argument that trams get cars off the road. But what cars?
They’re good for getting from Waverley Station to the airport, although the nearby airport buses are cheap and efficient.
The Ingliston park and ride is handy for out-of-towners, but it is hardly busy and can’t be taking many cars off the road. Would greater carbon reduction be achieved if we invested more in national infrastructure? That’s not a question for Edinburgh – but note that the Scottish Government is reluctant to fund the trams.
Could buses be greener? Edinburgh buses are already – slowly – reducing emissions. Should the money be invested in more, greener buses?
And let’s think big. If we’re serious about kicking the carbon habit, we need to address more than car exhausts. Less consumption in shopping centres. More support for local economies.
The thinking on the benefits of the proposed extension has perhaps been based on certain economic assumptions. The delay – it is only a short delay – gives us an opportunity to question these. If money from the people of Edinburgh is to be used to build infrastructure – will it deliver a result that puts all of them first?
If money from the people of Edinburgh is to be used to build infrastructure – will it deliver a result that puts all of them first?
That’s for Edinburgh people to decide. They have the greatest stake. They know their local environment and can think about what solutions will work best in it. We can trust them to think intelligently about the issue that affects all of us – carbon.
At the time of writing, local consultation is not going well. Leith small business folk are worried. Bus drivers – who we can be certain understand the issues – can’t express themselves on social media. Edinburgh passengers don’t see any use for the trams. How can all of them be put first when nobody is asking about their opinions and needs?
I’m an outsider. My initial impression was of a lovely, shiny, big project – a cut and paste from other modern cities. It’s what I’d have built. Then I asked around.
Picture courtesy of Craig Murphy