Cycling in Edinburgh – a bumpy ride but moving in the right direction

A banner on the window of my local bike shop, Soul Cycles in Bruntsfield, quotes H G Wells: “When I see an adult on a bicycle I do not despair for the future of the human race.” 

It’s a lovely remark (and guaranteed to make cyclists feel smug), though I wonder if the idea behind one of his most famous novels, The Invisible Man, had anything to do with that usual gripe of cyclists – about car, lorry and bus drivers failing to see us.

Wells, who died in 1946, also wrote The Time Machine. It would be interesting if the giant of science fiction zipped along 75 years and told us what he made of cycling in Edinburgh, 2021. 

A boom in bike sales and usage since the lockdown started last March – helped by the “essential” status of cycle shops throughout the pandemic, plus about 40km of new semi-segregated lanes on main roads under the Spaces for People scheme – has certainly been welcome. 

For everyone apart from “anti-cyclists”, that is.

Do such people really exist? It makes about as much sense as being an anti-toothbrusher, anti-saucepan user or anti-violinist, but we have all heard: “Cyclists are always going through red lights/up one-way streets/riding on the pavement…” as if all cyclists are doing those things non-stop while cars, vans, lorries and buses are spreading nothing but harmony and joy.

It’s a pity to have to spell this out but a cyclist is not a different species – it’s a person who happens to be on a bicycle at a given point in time. At other moments they might even be behind the wheel.


Cycling west along the Union Canal towards Polwarth Bridge


Steep learning curve

Anyway, how does Edinburgh shape up as a cycling city? One answer is: it helps if you like hills. They may not be for everyone – and an e-bike is always an option – but I happen to like them, especially in a city as spectacular as the Scottish capital. You struggle for a while, then you freewheel for a while, though I admit that pedalling up Dundas Street in wind and rain can be a bit of a nightmare.

It’s not all inclines though. A more pressing factor for many people is how safe, or not, they feel on a bike. Here the council's new 10-year mobility plan should bring further welcome changes over the next 10 years. 

You can’t have too much infrastructure. Investment in bike lanes, staggered traffic lights with cycle boxes, more parking space and other measures has already made a noticeable difference in the last five years or so. 

Also helpful are the public service ads on billboards and buses urging drivers to “think bike” etc.

When cyclists and motorists do have to share the same tarmac, i.e. most of the time, then the way people drive becomes crucial – being passed too close can be really scary and is liable to put off newcomers. It may even provoke bike rage; unlike its car counterpart, this usually stems from fear and disbelief rather than bruised ego.

The 20mph limit across most city streets, though rarely enforced, has probably helped check drivers’ speeds to some extent. I think more people would comply if the logic was better  – it is pointless demanding such low speeds on a wide boulevard such as Regent Road, for example.

As for Edinburgh potholes – this photograph shows a fairly typical surface. Wet cobbles and tram tracks are high on the list of other local perils.

 Rough road surface on Gilmore Place looking towards the King's Theatre
Sam Phipps

Benefits galore

But all this is far outweighed by the joys of cycling in and around Edinburgh. Speed, exercise, low cost and lack of hassle are just some of the pluses.

The city does contain a surprising amount of pedestrian/cycling only space, much of it scenic, some of it stunning, from Holyrood Park (undeniably hilly) to the long east-west stretch from Joppa all the way to Cramond via Leith Links and Newhaven/Granton (flat and with only short stretches of other traffic). 

Other highlights include the Meadows, the Union Canal (which you can follow all the way to Falkirk and on via the Forth & Clyde Canal to Glasgow if you’re in the mood), the Innocent railway path, the Water of Leith – taking you to Balerno and the Pentlands via the bold murals of the Colinton Tunnel.

On these paths you will not have to worry about anything except mad dogs, runners deafened by their own music, children, pedestrians and… other cyclists. A bell is highly recommended. 
Silverknowes esplanade is wide and spectacular
Sam Phipps

Overall the picture looks encouraging. We have to be realistic – those pesky hills mean Edinburgh is probably never going to be Amsterdam but it’s heading slowly in the right direction.

Cycle routes in and around Edinburgh

Check out this guide from Sustrans for a comprehensive lowdown

Bike shops

Edinburgh has an abundance of good local cycling shops. The following is not an exhaustive list but these are all places where I have had great service in recent years:

Soul Cycles – almost ridiculously fast turnaround for repairs.

Biketrax – I bought a fancy bell here the other day, struggled to fit it and lost a tiny, vital part. They found a replacement and installed the bell free of charge.

Edinburgh Bicycle Co-operative – bordering on too slick and too big, perhaps, but an impressive range of kit and services across two branches.

BG Cycles & Blades Ltd – a notoriously narrow and hard-to-open door but that’s the only drawback to this friendly Portobello outfit.

The Bicycle Works – small, efficient, expert.

Leith Cycle Co – what with 14 years of on-and-off tramworks outside their door, you have to feel for these guys but they are never less than delightful.  

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