It’s a given that the pandemic has eliminated or completely changed many things this year. Cities around the world have navigated the rough waters in their own way, but Scotland‘s capital city may take the cake. Edinburgh‘s city council recently decided to change not one but two of Old Town’s byways into car-free zones. The charming and quaint Old Town is home some of the best medieval finds in the country. Take Castle Rock, home of mighty Edinburgh Castle and the settlement where humans have dwelt since 850BC. The opposite end of the mile lies the official crash pad of the Queen while in Scotland, Palace of Holyroodhouse. How about the gory history of Grassmarket or candy coloured Victoria Street? One thing is for sure; there’s much to be discovered and admired. So, that said, why is Edinburgh’s Old Town going car free?
Edinburgh’s Old Town is Going Car-Free Thanks to the Pandemic
Victoria and Cockburn, two of Old Town’s most buzzing and photogenic streets are now pedestrian-only. Why? Well, mainly to repurpose the areas for more spacious dining and safer distance practise during the pandemic. No cars means it much easier for travellers to keep a safe space from one another to curb exposure. It also gives restaurants the freedom to sprawl out more and creates a dining experience that is as safe as it is enjoyable. It rings familiar to the “streeteries” that have become popular in NYC this year and speaks to the forced innovation that’s come out of the pandemic. The decision is also part of the “City Centre Transformation” initiative that aims to bring more bike lanes, trams and walking paths by 2022.
Mass Tourism, Historic Preservation and Their Impact on Local Life
It’s not just the pandemic that gave the need for more space on the roads, either. This is also a huge win for the preservation of Edinburgh’s medieval Old Town that doubles as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Cutting out the endless droves of beeping taxis and slugging cars helps reverse some of the damage caused by tourism. It also preserves the historic character and integrity of the area. After all, it’s much easier to imagine what 12th century Edinburgh must’ve been like without the distraction of modern vehicles.
Edinburgh pulls in a staggering five million visitors each year most of which flock to picturesque Old Town. This, combined with Old Town’s population of just 26,000, made Edinburgh one of the worst affected by mass tourism worldwide. In fact, these disproportionate figures put Edinburgh in the leagues of Rome, Venice and Barcelona for mass tourism. Over the years the flocks or tourists led to more than an unfair distribution of tourists to locals, however. Without change, these numbers in a place the size and stature of Old Town would eventually turn it into a highly polluted, over trafficked and cluttered shell of its former glory.
In other words, Edinburgh was destined for pedestrian-only streets long before the pandemic. All in all, locals seem to be a mixed bag with the change. The city was by far in favour of car-less streets prior to the pandemic. But now, due to the cratering of tourism, some wonder if it was worth it. The new rules come at a time when businesses are struggling to keep their doors open due to the halt of tourism compared to previous years. Many retailers agree that the pedestrianisation was needed when the streets were overrun with tourists and took away from the culture. However, now most of Edinburgh is vacant due to the pandemic and many small businesses are hurting.
How do car-less streets affect businesses?
Well, the pedestrianisation of the area during a pandemic discourages visitors who’d prefer to take their own car instead of public transport to lower exposure. The recent restrictions that led to the temporary closure of all pubs and restaurants have certainly not eased the pain either.
The city’s hope is overall optimistic, though. Most locals agree that it was the right decisions for the preservation of the city. Even though the timing was definitely off. It sounds to us like this new pedestrianisation will ultimately give the people of Edinburgh their city back and allow visitors and locals alike the chance to explore it more meaningfully. However, like most everything else in 2020, it won’t be without its challenges.