Open Streets is a global project designed to reclaim city streets from cars for people. Edinburgh joined the movement this month and it was superb.
On the 5th of May, Edinburgh joined the Open Streets movement. It's a global project that supports cities to claim back streets for people, by closing them to cars. I was fortunate enough to attend and was among the crowd when Edinburgh's Transport Convener, Councillor Lesley Macinnes, asked a promise of residents in attendance. That promise was to share our experiences of Edinburgh's Open Streets project. My experience - and somewhat environmentally-biased point of view - is going to be the topic of this week's post.
Feeling of Significance
Hiring bikes from the Just Eat Cycles Kirkgate station, my wife and I cycled up to meet friends from the 2050 Climate Group at Edinburgh's City Chambers. It was the first time we had been there together since we were married there last year, and although the nervous excitement was absent this time, the feeling of significance was definitely present. This significance was marked when Councillor Macinnes said in her opening speech of the Open Streets trial that 'all of this is occurring within the increasingly urgent, indeed quite terrifying, conversation around the climate emergency.' The climate emergency is indeed a scary reality. It's also an opportunity though, an opportunity to instrument fantastic change, and with Councillor Macinnes's opening words I felt she too appreciated this. This was a good start.
From here and with those powerful words still echoing in my mind, we formed a convoy of Just Eat Cycles bikes and followed Councillor Macinnes down to Dunbars Close Garden. Leading the way for us was Scotland's Active Nation Commissioner, Lee Craigie. We peddled down the High street, weaving smoothly between groups of people enjoying a road free of cars. I'm sure the potholes of the Royal Mile probably aren't as adventurous as some of Lee's mountain biking experiences, but I can confirm they certainly felt pretty exciting (the lack of front suspension helped).
Jazz, Calm, and Electric Bikes
At Dunbar Close, we parked up the bikes and set ourselves up for a small picnic on the well-maintained lawn. I love this garden, I visit it often on my walks in for work. It's usually deserted, so it was a bit surreal to be sitting there with friends, old and new, as a live band played smooth jazz and robins fluttered around pecking for crumbs. The Jazz band took a short break to allow Councillor Macinnes to speak and invite Lee Craigie to say a few words. Lee jokingly said her words would perhaps not be wise, but it sounded pretty sage when she said 'If we can build on this, and this becomes our norm, then I don't think we'll ever look back.' I hope Lee's right.
Leaving Dunbar Close, I was delighted to see how much a street free from the usual clanking of cars was being enjoyed. A kid who couldn't have been more than five years old came tearing past on a scooter, with not a care in the world and no sound of a concerned parent shouting 'get off the road!' All of us couldn't believe how wonderfully quiet it was. Without cars, the street was peaceful. Further up the Royal Mile a few of us stopped to enjoy a free yoga class. An odd experience I must admit, to be doing child's pose on a city street so frequently choked with traffic. At the same time though, it felt so perfectly normal. It amplified the immense sense of calm everyone kept commenting on. Walking this street only days before it would have been crazy to consider laying down in the road, but in the absence of cars it felt the right thing to do. Feeling unbelievably relaxed we continued our walk upward in the direction of Victoria Street, where we heard there were some electric bikes to test out. On our stroll up we observed two groups of people, those fully onside and embracing the open streets, and those still unsure and sticking to the pavement out of habit.
Victoria Street has what I like to refer to as a 'bastard of a gradient.' It's a tough hill to cycle up, and I can unashamedly say that I have never attempted the ascent under pedal power before. That was until I got to try an electric bike provided by Corstorphine's bike shop Hart's Cyclery. A quick push on the pedal and the motor kicked in turning the vertical cliff of Victoria St into a horizontal boulevard. I was shocked at what quick work the bike made of a climb I usually avoid with a detour through the Cowgate. I came back down the hill and passed the bike to a friend and watch his face light up with the same joy I saw earlier on the boy scooting down the High Street. I'm sure he still thinks about that electric bike whenever he hits a hill in Edinburgh. I know I do.
Back On Track
Back in the 60s, there were signs up in parts of Edinburgh asking that drivers not park their cars in the street. From 4PM until Sunset, these roads were designated playgrounds. A place for kids to play after school until that fateful time they had to head home 'when the street lamps come on'. At some point since then, I think we lost our way. Street playgrounds became car parks, putting vehicles above people, and parking above play. These priorities are backwards, and in my mind intensify the negative consequences of private cars in our cities: physical inactivity, the likelihood of road accidents, pollution, and so on. Fortunately, I'm far from the being the only one who believes we've gone astray.
The folks behind Open Streets are doing fantastic work for Edinburgh and are setting a great example to other cities watching the world over. I am truly grateful for the action they are taking to create a sustainable future for the place I call home. One mind behind the initiative is Daisy Narayanan, and while I didn't get to speak with her on the day, I did overhear her asking some others if they felt the day was going well. I want to confirm that from this active travellers perspective, the day couldn't have gone better.
Next week I’ll be taking a closer look at the area around the Just Eat Cycle’s station at City Chambers. In fortnight I’ll be taking a closer look at one of the major criticisms of Edinburgh’s Open Street Project: congestion.
Thanks for reading.
Header Photo Credit to Sophie Eastwood (@sophie_eastwd) who also provided doughnuts. She’s a saint.