End of a Long Era

North Berwick has recently grown with new residents—in fact, such growth has been common down its thousand-year history. From ferrymen originally, down through sailors trading with Hanseatic ports in the Middle Ages to coastal barques taking wheat, potatoes and turnips to booming cities in Napoleonic times, the harbour has always been the driver for that, many new residents now being ELYC members.

But the harbour’s golden age came a century ago when the railway allowed fish easy reach to market and the ‘silver darling’ herring became king. This was the heyday of the Harbour Terrace, crammed with Millars and Thorburns, Browns and Sherburns, many come from further up the Forth as that era’s new residents. So many were there that the harbour overflowed, boats being dragged up onto Elcho Green and most Westgate residents showing occupation as ‘fisherman’.

However, one family was no such century-old ‘incomer’. Most towns have a name around which it was built. In North Berwick, the name is Marr. Deriving from the far reaches of the Cairngorms, it is first recorded in North Berwick when a Patricke Marr had a son in 1656—and followed that up with three more at two-yearly intervals.

Down the centuries for their next eleven generations, the Marrs were a harbour institution, peaking in the 1881 census when no fewer than 17 of them are recorded there. That year, James Marr (46) was living there with his wife Elizabeth (43, from Dirleton), three children and two in-laws.

James Marr went on to be Harbourmaster (a responsible post in such busy times) and a well-known, popular personality, universally known as ‘Daddy’. He still found time to furnish a string of rowing boats in the West Bay for hire to ‘trippers’ as a side-line. These passed on to Percy Pearson because, by 1931 and aged 95, ‘Daddy’ Marr had held the post so long he’d become the oldest harbourmaster in the British Isles.

But the last generations of this remarkable family made an impact far afield. ‘Fred’ Marr was born in 1923 and, by the sixties, fishing for lobster and crab in Girl Pat. But an entrepreneur spirit landed him the mail contract for local lighthouses and his Viking good looks won an appearance in the “View from the Bass” promotional film. By the seventies, launches that once took tourists out to Bass Rock were gone, so Fred brought Sula II up from Norfolk to fill the gap and inveigled his son Chris into crewing for him.

For the next thirty years, no visit to the town was complete without a trip on Sula II, spiced with Fred or Chris’s knowledgeable, if heavy-brogued, commentary. Over 100,000 people enjoyed that unique experience. As Fred passed 80, he finally let Chris and his sister Pat take over, dying peacefully at 85. Chris, having already dedicated much of his life to the business, decided on retirement and was only starting to enjoy it, pursuing the history he loved when an accident cut it all short in late 2012.

With Chris’s death (all three of his children being daughters) over 350 years of continuous family history in one small town ended abruptly—without anyone recording the voluminous research Chris carried in his head. Now that Pat has moved to Stornoway, the absence of any Marrs around the harbour seems out of joint, fundamentally wrong as the keel of a boat being suddenly missing.

First published in the East Lothian Courier, April 2014


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The John Muir Line?

In Summer 2015 the Borders Railway will end the line’s unique existence as the sole local rail service coming East out of Waverley station. But while the line to Galasheils could open up the Central Borders the existing service into East Lothian has at least as much potential that could be tapped for a lot less than the Borders’ £300m.

From a skeletal two trains each way in 1970, our existing line was revived by steady patronage, resulting in two new stations, an hourly seven-day service and modern 4-car class 380 rolling stock. It’s a huge success story, carrying millions of passengers, with North Berwick recently exceeding 250,000 passengers for the first time. Having tourists and QMU students travel counter to our commuters and a steady number of shoppers filling daytime trains, the line is among ScotRail’s most profitable.

Recent community rail meetings have shown the industry appreciates this and focus is now on the undeveloped potential of the East Coast Main Line past Drem. Dunbar is an anomaly—a local station run by a long-distance operator: East Coast. ScotRail has already started serving Dunbar by filling in gaps in the East Coast/Virgin trains that stop. But the real secret to unlocking the other ‘half’ of East Lothian’s potential is to see Dunbar as the other ‘arm’ of a rail ‘Y’ and run a single half-hour service to Drem, then alternating trains to there and North Berwick, giving Dunbar a regular hourly service as well.

This would serve the huge growth in Dunbar’s population and make the re-building of an East Linton station logical to cater for planned growth there. Such a step is embedded in the new ScotRail franchise and would provide ELC a solid regular transport ‘backbone’ on which to re-base bus services, Rages and Relbus plus the just-formed Community Rail partnership already advocate.

This also forms the basis for further improvements—local services to Berwick; re-opened station at Reston; more passing loops to separate local and high-speed trains. Such coherence offers the chance to market our public transport as a seamless service covering the whole county.

Extending the present community involvement in station flowers and decoration to signage, information and other facilities like kiosks and toilets would give it character and identity. Since it would offer eight dispersed points to access the John Muir Trail I will be lobbying to market the whole thing as the ‘John Muir Line’.


First published in the East Lothian Courier, April 2014

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Putting Private to Shame

Council housing has come in for some social stick down the years—mostly coming from petty snobbery. Being a ‘schemie’ myself I liked how our dads could turn their hand to building a sledge or knowing where to catch mackerel. Dads of private school kids were helpless guys in suits who paid our dads to fix things—and we pitied their pasty-faced offspring who never got home before it was dark.

While such social distinctions have faded, the growth of commuter housing across East Lothian and rampant right-to-buy (RTB) saw a huge growth in private detached homes but little that was affordable to rent. Although I’m supportive of RTB, it must be balanced by new build. But ELC stopped building 30 years ago so barely 8,000 of their original 20,000 were still on their books. The pips began squeaking for young people not in ‘priority need’ seeking to rent locally.

ELC should have kept building, despite RTB. A house built for £35k in East Lothian and rented for ten years would then be valued much more; ELC would have received a sum comparable to their outlay—even with discount—they could then invest in another new house. Unfortunately, no such bold step was taken. The Homes For Life arms’-length registered social landlord alternative singularly failed to fill the gap—building 300 homes in five years when asked to deliver 500 homes in three years.

Fortunately for people waiting decades to rent a council house, six years ago ELC did grasp the thistle with an ambitious programme for 1,000 council homes across the county. From the first handful at Macbeth Moir Road in Musselburgh’s ‘Wimpeys’ snug and well designed homes in Dunbar’s Lochend and the 100-home site of Muirpark Wynd in Tranent, the long waiting list went down while standards went up.

As evidenced by the last of the 42 new homes in Law View, North Berwick that was handed over this week, modern council houses are not only more spacious, better built and better insulated than private estates but their layout and style are not only more child- and community-friendly. So much so they are being entered for architectural awards. In contrast the ‘desirable’ 5-bedroom Cala homes across town are seen as expensive ‘cookie cutter’ exemplars of what’s wrong with house design in Scotland.


First published in the East Lothian Courier, March 2014

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

On the Cusp of Peace

This year sees the centenary of the outbreak of WWI and its terrible loss of life. A much smaller tragedy— but one poignant because it was avoidable— happened as the last warlike act of WW2 not ten miles off East Lothian.

In both world wars, Germany terrorised British merchant shipping with a variety of Unterseeboote. Early models in WW2 were still primitive—short-ranged, slow and forced to surface regularly. But German science developed “Walther” submarines, able to move fast and stay submerged. Luckily for our sailors, they came too late.

One of the few to see service was U-2336, commanded by Kapitänleutnant (Commodore) Emil Klusmeier, an officer intimately involved in their development. After a shakedown in April, U-2336 sailed from Kiel on war patrol on May 1st.

Hitler had committed suicide the day before, naming his successor as Großadmiral Dönitz, former U-boat supremo. He capitulated to the Allies three days later, issuing orders for a complete ceasefire of all Wehrmacht forces from midnight on May 7th. Being submerged, U-2336 was unaware.

Aboard five ships and three escort trawlers of convoy EN91, assembling off Methil bound for Belfast, this was great news. As the ships left port on the evening of May 7th, flares, rockets and impromptu parties ashore celebrated the return of peace.

Towards 11pm, dusk had fallen on the little convoy now two miles SE of the May where U-2336 was able to see them outlined against the faint light still in the north-western sky. Klusmeier had only two torpedoes but he was able to use the U-boats superior speed to reach an ideal firing position.

The first torpedo struck the 1,790-ton Sneland 1, an old Norwegian freighter originally built in Germany. She sank quickly, taking seven of her 28-man crew to the bottom, including her captain. Before the escorts could intervene, Klusmeier had lined up the year-old, 2,787-ton Avondale Park (Canadian but with a British crew) and hit her with his remaining torpedo. Though sinking within two minutes, most of her 32-man crew survived. Only two died: chief engineer George Anderson and donkeyman William Harvey, last casualties within an hour of peace.

Klusmeier easily eluded pursuit to return to Kiel and some intense questioning. The fifty survivors were picked up and returned to Methil, dampening celebrations there. The remains of both ships lie near each other on a silted bottom. Despite their 55m depth, they are popular sites for wreck divers.

First published in the East Lothian Courier, February 2014

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Our Babel Tower of Place Names

Despite a popular destination now for those seeking quality of life, our corner of Scotland was not always the quiet rural backwater it appears. In fact, it has the richest cultural heritage, pulling together in one place the disparate threads from which our ‘mongrel nation’ was woven. East Lothian may be the most mongrel of all.

During Roman times, a Welsh-speaking Goddodin tribe dominated the area from their hill forts on Traprain Law, Berwick Law, Garletons, etc. whose King Loth gave his name to the whole region. By the seventh century, after heavy defeat at Catterick—as described in Y Goddodin the oldest medieval text in Welsh to survive—they fell prey to Northumbrians surging north from their capital at Bamburgh.

Despite becoming a Christianised province of Northumbria, sealed by a monastery founded by Baldred, their rule was weak, explaining survival of many Brythonic place names, such as Tranent (steading by the stream), Pencaitland (land at the head of the woods) and Traprain itself (the steading of the trees), together with its older name Dinpelder (the fort of staves). Others still dot the county: Aberlady (originally Aberlessic, sluggish rivermouth); Pressmennan (upland copse); Longniddry (long new farm).

During the next three hundred years, most of the county’s main settlements appeared with names of Anglian origin: Tyninghame (home of folk by the Tyne); Haddington (village of the Had folk), Preston (priest’s village); Whitberry (white cairn); Carberry (cairn fort); Kingston (laird’s village); Sydserff (henchman’s settlement); Linton (village by the waterfall) and Seaton (village by the sea).

Up to the turn of the millennium, Vikings raiding introduced their influence as they settled and created the origins of Dunbar (barley fort) leaving Norse local names—Fidra (feather island); Markle (small wood); Humbie (river meadow farm); Hedderwick (settlement by the heath); Begbie (small farm); Scoughall (the wood in the hollow). We also have many Laws (from Lög—hill where laws were read out).

Most puzzling are Gaelic names in this area with no Gaelic history. Yet Ballencrieff (village by the tree); Garvald (rocky stream); Macmerry (Mary’s plain); Cockenzie (Kenneth’s cove) and Inveresk (mouth of the water) are pure Gaelic, as are many features along the coast: Craigleith (grey rock) Leckanbane (small white rocks) Leckmoramness (point of big rocks); Maidens (middle rocks). Were there perhaps once gaelic-speaking fishermen who named our coast?

With Malcolm II’s victory at Carham in 1019, the area became part of Scotland and, though new names were created, they were coined in the Scots dialect still spoken, like Whitekirk; Auldhame, Saltoun, or Luggate. But a curious exception to all this is Gifford: it derives from 8th century Frankish (give hard) and probably came with a Norman knight of that name when Queen Margaret was civilising the Scots court in the 13th century.

First published in the East Lothian Couier, Febuary 2014


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


You can drive down Abbotsford Road in North Berwick and not even know it’s there. Carlekemp, a magnificent pile of mellow Rattlebags stone, hides in its four acres behind a high wall that retains the grandeur intended when it was first built. The name derives from the Celtic for the “crooked knoll” on which it stands, predating both the house and the 178-yard par 3 Hole 4 of the golf course it overlooks.

In the Victorian industrial boom, James Craig had amassed a fortune from his paper mills along the Esk around Penicuik. In the fashion of the time, a prosperous, high-profile family such as his needed a summer residence in a fashionable resort. In 1898, he commissioned Edinburgh architect John Kinross, RSA to provide him with a suitable 2-storey Cotswold Elizabethan style manor house on land between the recently completed Abbotsford Road and North Berwick’s West Links.

Kinross crafted an iconic Elizabethan Cotswold beauty but lost out to Lorimer to construct the almost-as-impressive mansions in similar style and stone for Craig’s brother Robert (Bunkershill in 1904) and with Peddie for Westerdunes (1910). Although its exterior and setting remain unspoilt the real gem of Carlekemp is the interior of the western third of the building—sometimes called Flat 1. This is actually the historic main portion of the original house. Superbly panelled in oriental teak and mahogany by Scott Morton and Company, Edinburgh, the galleried hall boasts Jacobean details and oriel over doorway, as well as strapwork and ornate plasterwork throughout.

Even a glance inside provides a flavour of how well those Edwardian magnates lived—especially considering this was merely their summer residence. Credit both to their taste for having built it but also to those who have preserved its graceful dignity down the years. In 1971, it was given Grade A Listed Building status. But, as elsewhere, large houses became progressively more difficult to keep and in 1945, Carlekemp was converted into a Priory Prep School under the supervision of the Friars from Fort Augustus Abbey. Father Oswald Eaves and his staff dressed in traditional brown habits taught well known pupils including the Duke of Hamilton, Earl of Haddington, George Hope of Luffness and Ludovic Broun-Lindsay (present Provost of East Lothian). The Priory School itself received unfavourable press last year about abuse of its pupils but its Prep School had closed in 1977 when the building was converted into apartments.

First published in the East Lothian Courier, March 2014

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Border Rail: Cheap as (Ballast) Chips?

For decades now, East Lothian’s economy has been driven by Edinburgh’s. While the council, electricity generation, tourism and agriculture all provide local jobs, these are dwarfed by the 25,000 people who choose to combine East Lothian’s high quality of life with jobs in the capital and its suburbs. Though most drive, one third of those coming from North Berwick do use the train—in part because car commute is slow on the congested Milton Road/A720. Despite rush-hour crowding and overflowing car parks, pressure to expand both residents and commuters remains strong.

On the other hand, rural Eastern Berwickshire has barely 2% who work in Edinburgh because neither car nor rail commuting is easy or fast. As a result, it has less growth and more poverty: Eyemouth is actually losing population. A 2011 study that showed a business case existed for trains through East Lothian to Berwick. As a start, ScotRail trains filled in gaps in Cross-Country/East Coast services to Dunbar to cobble together an hourly service that far.

Now, a second study published last month strengthens the case for a service all the way to Berwick as part of the next ScotRail franchise. A stopping service from Waverley, adding new stations to be built at East Linton and Reston, as well as Dunbar on the way to Berwick, is rated as having a Benefit/Cost Ratio (BCR) of 1.52 (if run jointly with the North Berwick service and up from 1.10 in the 2011 study).

It appears possible to run an hourly service, which would benefit East Lothian directly by doubling train frequency to 30 minutes between Drem and Waverley. But it would also provide a huge economic boost to Berwickshire, slashing travel times and making major house building viable, taking some pressure off East Lothian.

Operating details like timetable, how many trains of what type and service beyond Waverley are not yet defined. Costs are calculated around £57m, including two new stations and annual subsidy of £1.7m. Given that takings on the North Berwick line have doubled since modern rolling stock arrived in 2005 (Musselburgh is up 126% in four years, thanks to QMU)

The single-station Alloa service cost that much and is seen as a success, so the Scottish Transport Minister should see this option as a good deal. The basic service could be running as early as 2015, with new stations taking a couple of years more to complete.

First Published in the East Lothian Courier, January 2014

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Parallel with Parnell

(corrected Aprol 25th)

This last year has been a busy one for anyone in politics. One year ago the SNP retained its hold on the Scottish parliament. Last June, the David Cameron government committed harikari over Brexit and just when it seemed things were quietening down with a low profile election, Theresa May blind sided everyone by calling a snap election for June 8. This last year was already memorable but now it has become historic, if not seminal for the 60 million inhabitants of these islands.


More than Atlee’s 1945 victory or the 1979 and 1997 elections that led to Thatcher and Blair’s long reigns, this one won’t change the UK it will dismember it. In springing a snap election, May has made a shrewd if cynical move. Far from being in the country’s interest, this throws red meat to her ill disciplined back woodsman while blind siding her hapless opposition already hamstrung by an unelectable leader in Corbyn. The fact that it has stolen any thunder from May’s local elections is irrelevant.


The whole demographics of the selection are different to any previous. Queer, as once heartlands such as Tory Surrey or Labour Lancashire were taken as red and the election hung on a few dozen marginals. The fact that they started campaigning in Bolton North East shows that Tories believe that these former Labour heartlands that voted strongly to leave the EU are ripe for conquest. Not just Croydon but Sunderland and Hartlepool are likely to return Tory MP’s this time round. They may even succeed in places like Perth and Berwickshire from under the SNP’s noses. About the only downside for the Tories is likely to be a resurgence of Liberal Democrats in the South west. Condemn the Tories if you would like but they do understand aspiration. These days the average voter is aspirational.


My own dire prediction is 170 Labour, 30 LibDem, 55 SNP and a landslide of almost 400 Tories. Labour is already a rarity in South-east England. But watch for the blue erode islands of red in the Midlands and North as well.


It should surprise no one that the Tories are brutally pragmatic enough to exploit a 20 point poll lead by calling a snap election.. What is surprising is that their main opponents appear to have learned nothing from their 1983 debacle and are again sticking their heads in to the demographic sand.


Time was that the “party of the working man” could indeed rely on the votes of workers.

But with the exception of train crew, teachers and council workers, few are unionised and fewer vote Labour as a matter of course. Dockers, miners, footplate men or riveters, they are all history now. Though poverty still exists, the average British worker has a house, car, a 42 inch HD TV and suns himself in Lanzarote or the like. These “Labour values” which Corbynistas tout are only being kept alive by Fabians and the dispossessed in an ever shrinking minority. However unpalatable Blairism may seem to the faithful, he showed the Labour party a 21st century future. A future on which it seems hell bent on turning its back.


Exploitative and Cynical though May’s decision may seem, anyone else faced with a similar open goal would have handled the ball in to the back of the net. But why all but 13 Labour MP’s should have supported her, requires deeper analysis. If ever Jim Callaghan’s jibe about Turkeys voting for Christmas applied, then it is to this hale clamjafrie, about to get their collective jotters.


So this Summer, expect to go back to the future by about 30 years. May has already shown she can be as autocratic as Thatcher. And with a similar 100 plus majority, there will be nothing to restrain her. But the bad news is there will be no democratic counterweight like the miners to keep her honest, nor any new flood of North Sea oil money to boost living standards and keep people happy. As the economic drag of Brexit becomes more apparent and the NHS slides further out of control, white elephants like Trident or the carriers will be parred and belts tightened. It will be around then that the folly of ignoring the protracted crisis of the Northern Irish Assembly, the request by this Scottish Parliament for a further referendum and the comeback from ignoring friends like the Irish within the EU, will come home to roost.


Isolated outside and autocratic inside the UK, May’s government will become evermore Anglo centric and hanker for some form of Churchillian greatness that died a century ago. While this may play well in the home counties, those newly blue Brexiteer heartlands “oop North” suffer as investment continues to drain to London if not Frankfurt.


Worst of all will be the “Ultima Thule” of the cultural colonies of Ulster and Scotland which back woodsman Tories especially, have never understood, since “making the world England” is their only philosophy. Give both places 5 years of untrammelled Tories with May at the helm, then watch Ulster fold quietly into the Republic and Scotland finally go its own way in a velvet divorce. By then May will be too busy holding a fractious Tory party and a fractured England together to worry about losing them. Gung-ho Unionists would do well to avoid celebrating any repeat of 1983 and give sober consideration to a century prior to that. At its imperial height, the UK parliament included 103 seats in Ireland with over 80% of them held by Irish Nationalists. Within two decades, Ireland was independent. May’s myopic grab for irredeemably English power will launch Scotland on a similar path one century later.

Posted in Politics | Tagged | 3 Comments

Derek’s Deckchair Dispositions

Our Finance Minister Derek Mackay  may be new to his job but the boyish looks deceive; he is no rookie. Bred in the rough-and-tumble West Central politics of Renfrewshire Council, he built the SNP Group there into  formidable opponents of Labour;s hegemony. His reward was leading the fist-ever SNP administration there 2007-11. That was followed by election as an MSP, with ministerial posts soon after before taking over the hot potato of Finance from John Swinney’s legendary ‘safe pair of hands’.

So, How Did Our Boy Do?

In his first budget on December 15th, his hands did not fumble. Faced with predictable “no-taxes!” cries from the Tories and “more-taxes!” cries from Labour, he dominated the centre ground with a budget that should appeal to Scottish voters, most of whom are in the middle these days. But alienating both main opposition parties does not exclude either of the minor parties from supporting his budget after a little horse-trading.

Nicola should give him high marks for continuing John’s safe pair of hands. Going beyond ‘steady-as-she-goes’ Derek contrived a number of items that received little attention. Amonng these are:

  • £340m more for the NHS, which is a real £120m increase over inflation
  • £200m in capital to help provide more affordable homes
  • £140m in capital to extend the home insulation programme
  • £100m to speed up the rollout of fast broadband and communications
  • Extending to 100,000 the number of small businesses paying no rates
  • £60m for the police budget which at least keeps pace with inflation

He deserved more praise for these. But since even his opponents agree these are good ideas, the Scottish media ignores harmony to fixate on controversial or tabloidesque gossip as juicier reading. Even leaving tax thresholds alone earned scant coverage.

Does That Mean Our Boy Done Good?

Erm…not quite. As a stratagem to flatfoot the opposition, please his boss and stay popular among SNP MSPs, the answer is ‘yes’—a slicj fiscal elastoplast for the short term that raises little ire. But the UK struggling with a devalued currency on the brink of recession. Add in Scotland trailing England by over 1% in economic growth and that needs decisive action that wasn’t there.

Despite being given tax levers for the first time, scant use was made of them to re-stimulate Scotland’s economy. Indeed, by draining a third  of Scottish Enterprise’s £450m budget (richly though they deserved it), it could be argued he did more harm than good to growth.

Throwing more money at the NHS and schools and even rail passengers are popular with voters. But they do little to increase or distribute wealth. There was, however, one area where smoke and mirrors were deployed extensively: local government. His budget only got mealy-mouthed when it got to his. press release (published verbatim in the Hootsmon) said: “Councils to get £240m funding boost“.

Keeping Councils Quiet

Given council elections due next May, he had to boost the chances of  1,200 SNP candidates hoping to become councillors. After a decade of austerity and five years of real-term cuts of 9%, warm words don’t cut it in the teeth of cold number any more. Let’s look closer at that £240m ‘boost’.

Ever since John Swinney’s 2007 ‘Parity of Esteem’ turned out to be code for central control, the SNP government has treated local colleagues of all parties as subservient. Although Derek was local government minister for three years (2011-14) his main effort was to keep councillors docile before passing them on to the equally comatose  Marco Biagi. Derek is smart enough to know local government underpins party political strength. So May must offer good reasons why the SNP should run schools, refuse, etc. Derek offered|

  • £107m to further fund integration of local NHS with social work
  • £120m direct to head teachers for attainment in deprived areas
  • £100m stepped increases in council tax rates for bands E, F, G & H
  • Assumed £70m from 3% increase in council tax now freeze is lifted

Sounds more like £400m than the £240m he cites. But the money for NHS integration and school heads is ‘ring-fenced’ and can be spent only on those items, Inflation and pay rises alone would require £300m more to provide the same services as this year. That looks more like a £160m shortfall.

Bottom Line

Councils  will be forced to raise council tax by 3% AND levy the increased tax from high-end property owners—and get pelters for it while Derek smiles and claims he raised no taxes taxes.  Meanwhile, councils will have only half the increase they need. For all his warm words and council experience, this leaves Derek’s council colleagues rather in the lurch as they face budget setting this February.

It will take  special loyalty and bravery among would-be SNP councillors who face voters so poorly furnished with fiscal arguments without giving Derek a choice piece of their mind at the very next opportunity..

Posted in Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

Phoenix: Rising Fast…but Then Ashes?

Jet-lagged and shocked by temperature differentials, this may not be cohesive. especially after a 3-month hiatus in writing this blog. A month in the capital of Arizona is a real experience of the American Dream writ large. At 4.3m people in its metropolitan area, it is the largest of all US state capitals in both people and area, at 2,969 sq km. That’s seven times the population of Edinburgh spread over twelve times its area.

And, unlike Edinburgh, Phoenix and its surrounding suburban cities of Tempe, Mesa, Glendale, Scottsdale, etc have virtually no historic centres or convoluted existing street layouts to preserve. Although founded in 1881, it was a small agriculture-based town until after WW2. Powered by the same aerospace and tech boom that stimulated Los Angeles and Silicon Valley, development of air conditioning and the flat desert landscape allowed the booming city to be laid out in a classic grid pattern impeded only by chapparal scrub, saguaro cactus and the need to pipe water in.

Whereas most booming US cities are hemmed in by mountains, sea or agriculture, Phoenix has no such restriction. It laid out numbered N/S avenues to the West and Streets to the East of Central and squared them off with named E/W roads at regular intervals, starting with Baseline in the very South. Even supposedly autonomous cities like Glendale fit into this pattern. All of them are laid out in a generous pattern of two lanes in each direction with protected turning lanes in the median and a forest of traffic lights at each main intersection.


This grid is fed by the major E/W 8-lane freeway of Interstate 10 and similar N/S 8-lane freeway of Interstate 17, augmented by orbital 8-lane State freeways like 51, 101, and 220. At no point in this 50-mile-by-50-mile metropolis are you more than three miles from a freeway—built ahead of the streets and settlements they serve, not after.


Arizona State Hiway 101 at 59th Avenue Looking West (White lines delineate carpool lanes)

What this allows is an amazingly (and confusingly) regular mixture of tract homes and industrial sites with gas stations and retail malls at major intersections. It also allows a diffuse development that makes LA look dense by comparison. Large tracts of untouched desert still with tall cacti and palo verde trees intersperse settlements. especially near the periphery. Make no mistake: this is a thriving city, averaging 4% growth for the last 40 years and whose Sky Harbor airport is rated the best in the US.

Most of all, this is a car-based society. Not only are streets wide but distances are huge—as are parking lots and premises; Home Depot is typically 400m long and covers an area of over 50,000 sq m. And that’s without the 0.2 sq km parking lot in front. Pedestrians are, needless to say, a rarity. People think little of driving 30 miles to & from work or go to entertainment or even for a meal. There is a downtown that includes the usual office skyscrapers and cultural hubs like Symphony Hall and the Art Museum but it does not bustle with life and would not be recognised as a city centre by many Europeans.


Financial Office Buildings in Downtown Phoenix. (The Copper/Sand Colour is Typical)

Developments made recently are the sine qua non refinement of tract housing but are over 20 miles distant from downtown and. Here streets are curved, relatively short, child-friendly and dead-ended, with the pricier lots being laid out around a golf course or a lake. Four-bedroom and swimming pool is standard—with a 3-car garage (3rd slot for a golf cart). Though much of the planting is desert flora, Arizonans are profligate with water, tending lawns and decorating such developments with streams, waterfalls and fountains.

This high-income, affluent lifestyle with plenty menial labour around to support it is pretty much an embodiment of the American Dream. This has put Arizona politically in the Republican camp and the local tendency is not to think globally or about vague futures when there are businesses to be run, families to raise and bills—especially medical and school fees—to pay. As a result, with the exception of the latino population, Trump did well here in the recent election and took all 11 of the state’s delegates.

Phoenix may represent the apogee of Western consumer civilisation—at least for those with the money. But social segregation seems entirely related to salary. The golf-course-and-lake suburbs are pure ‘white bread’. By contrast, although over a quarter of the population, they are seen in such areas working in nearby retails shps, country clubs and restaurants—or driving in/out of those areas as gardeners, pool services, cat-sitters, cleaners, etc. Asians are not unusual but a black face is rare, other than around ASU, downtown or the older neighbourhood along 19th Avenue.

These latter are more apparent on public transport, which does exist. Indeed the Metro Valley Light Rail could teach Edinburgh trams a thing or two. Consider the contrast:


Comparison of Metro Valley Light Rail with Edinburgh Trams

Generally, Edinbugh does not come out too well. MVLR uses more flexible 3-segment usnits that can be coupled into trains as long as three, which makes for flexible demand response.A typical station is show below.


Two MVLR Trams pass at Came;back & Central Station

Virtually all the lines run down centre dividers on main streets so the layout follows a zig-zag pattern through the street grid. This can cause trouble with drivers who are still unaware of just how much damage even a glancing blow from a speeding tram can cause.


Result of a Truck trying to Turn in Front of a MVLR Tram in Tempe AZ; No-one was Hurt

Large trucks such as the damaged Ford F350 shown above are hugely popular, despite their gas-guzzling nature. But, with gasoline at barely $2 a US gallon (40p a litre) there is little demand for fuel efficiencyimpressively better thought the MVLR system may be than what we have achieved so far in Scotland, it serves as small a fraction of the city population as Edinburgh Trams do.

Which means over 90% of all business, shopping and commuting is done entirely by car and over large distances. As long as gas hovers near 40p a litre, such a lifestyle is affordable. But what if there’s another ‘oil shock’ as happened in the 1970’s? Or if the entire American population of 330,000,000 want to have sprawling homes and drive everwhere, this utopia for the few would not be sustainable. Finding jobs near their homes—let alone ones that are walkable/bikeable is unrealistic. Property prices would fall, people strung out on debt would default and the main asset on most people’s ledger—their house—would become a liability.

Good thought their trams are, they counld not provide a network dense enough, let alone afford tp build such a huge extension, to sustain the city. Which would shrink and revert to the desert from which it sprang.

Posted in Commerce, Community, Politics, Transport, Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment