After years of campaigning, it seems my dream of having air that’s fit to breathe in Musselburgh High Street is a small step closer to becoming reality.
There was understandable concern back in May when First Group announced their withdrawal from East Lothian, meaning the loss of local bus services and potential redundancy for almost 100 workers based at the Musselburgh and North Berwick depots.
Thankfully, publicly-owned Lothian Buses & local firm Prentice Coaches leapt into action. The services to Dunbar, Haddington and along the coast road to North Berwick have been saved, along with the depots and the jobs. Great news in its own right, but why does this mean a glimmer of hope for my campaign to clear the air in the Honest Toun?
Well, First Group were notorious for their, ahem, vintage vehicles. The buses they ran on the routes through Musselburgh were the most appalling example of public transport hand-me-downs. Crummy interiors, zero suspension and shocking exhaust fumes.
Over the years I’ve had good engagement with Lothian Buses over the issue of air quality in Musselburgh High Street but First Group… They simply didn’t want to know.
It speaks volumes that a set of bus routes that this whining private firm said weren’t profitable has clearly been made to work by a public firm with a public-facing attitude. The new buses operating on the routes through Musselburgh are clean, quiet and comfortable.
To find out how this upgrade to the public transport fleet could be helping tackle Musselburgh’s air pollution problem, I recently paid a visit to the local depot on Mall Avenue. Many thanks to Emma Roy, Bill Devlin and Mike Steven for showing me round. The depot itself has had a good scrub and it sounds as though plans are afoot to revive a shop front offering tickets and information.
In terms of exhaust emissions, the big difference is that the majority of East Coast buses have engines that meet what’s called “Euro 5” specification. This means that they emit very low levels of problematic gases such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter – the latter two being the biggest concerns when it comes to air quality and public health.
Emma, the firm’s Environmental Officer, tells me that East Coast are looking to have Euro 5 as a minimum standard on all routes. From the discussion at the depot it’s clear to me these guys understand the impact on Musselburgh’s reputation and public health from the Air Quality Management Area the council had to declare three years ago.
I’m also pleased to hear from Prentice, who run the 108 Fort Kinnard-Haddington service abandoned by First, and the 111 to ERI, that most of their vehicles also meet modern emissions standards.
My concern however is that East Lothian Council breathe a sigh of relief that the bus routes have been saved and think there is nothing more to be done for Musselburgh. What’s really needed is a proper Bus Quality Partnership that keeps the pressure on all bus operators to reduce the health impacts of their vehicles. This is an option available to East Lothian Council under the Transport Act 2001 but they’ve yet to avail themselves of it. All we have to date is a voluntary “Passenger Charter” – a good one, mind you – put together by RELBUS. It says nothing about emissions or air quality, perhaps understandably given that RELBUS is a rural users’ group.
But even with cleaner engines, we’re still talking about 500 buses a day going up Musselburgh High Street, and it doesn’t take much to bring the road to a standstill. The slavish belief that car parking must be provided immediately outside shops means it’s oh so tempting for motorists to double park and “just nip in”, causing gridlock in the process. Mindless HGVs on double yellows and pavements at school drop-off and pick-up times are also a nightmare.
We need a proper plan to encourage responsible parking away from the High Street. The return of the Blue Meanies (aka traffic wardens) can’t come soon enough!
Added to that there’s plenty of evidence that making shopping streets safer and easier to access for cyclists and pedestrians increases spending. The fine folks at Spokes have an event all about it coming up on 10 November in Edinburgh. As things stand you couldn’t pay me to cycle along my own High Street!
In summary, it’s good to see the back of the belchers, and welcome to see modern vehicles run in the public interest. But the challenge of easing congestion remains, and by tackling that we can ensure air that’s fit to breathe and a town centre that is a place people want to spend time (and money!).