Breath of fresh air for Princes Street

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Not quite 200 years after Parliament acted to bar property developers from the south side of Princes Street in Edinburgh and preserve one of the finest promenades in Europe, the city council is preparing to rid it of today's noxious menace - the car.

Accident and pollution levels on the famous street have decreased since an experimental ban on eastbound cars was introduced last August. On Monday, David Begg, convener of the city's transport committee, will call on colleagues to make the pilot permanent and begin a feasibility study on banning cars from the westbound carriageway.

The distinguishing feature of the three-quarter-mile-long street is that it is open on one side. Posh shops such as Jenners, the oldest independent department store in the world, look south across Princes Street Gardens to grey tiers of 10- and 12-storey historic buildings crowned by the castle.

This grand prospect was preserved for all time in 1816 when Parliament decreed there should be no building on the south side - a public-spirited act which came only after fierce debate over aesthetics and commercial prosperity. Now the vision is of a Princes Street where the view can be taken in from a pavement cafe on reclaimed carriageway. Eastbound traffic, with the exception of buses and bicycles, was banned under the experiment, with taxis granted limited access. A pedestrians' attitude survey showed almost two-thirds of people want the changes retained, and so do the stores. Peter Stillwell, chief executive of the city's Chamber of Commerce, said the extra pedestrian space had been greeted favourably by shoppers. "If the customers are happier that must bode well for trade."

For Mr Begg, a lecturer in transport economics, a car-free Princes Street is "symbolic" as a demonstration of the council's intention to bring about a transport revolution, although consultation and order-making mean this may be only just in time for the millennium celebrations. "Politicians are always prepared to wax lyrical about improving public transport and tackling the car but we are taking the decisions - even if it means some short-term flak," Mr Begg said.

Mr Begg is pushing a package of measures, including bus-priority lanes and services for pedestrians and cyclists. Targets include cutting road casualties by a third by 2000, cutting car exhaust pollution by 20 per cent by the same date and reducing car traffic by 30 per cent by 2010.