London’s Oxford Street is set to be pedestrianised – though a plan for the change has yet to be fully drawn up. A June meeting of the GLA’s transport committee revealed some conflicting views of the future – and how to get there.
While there has been plenty of discussion over the years about the possibility of completely removing vehicles from the thoroughfare, the complexity and scale of the issue appears to have scared off evangelists in the past. But a mayoral commitment to making the transformation has combined with the growing realisation that new Crossrail stations will spill thousands of pedestrians into the area every day – and the current pavements simply will not cope.
The other big issue in the street is buses. Many routes run along Oxford Street, and current congestion – exacerbated by Crossrail construction – means the street is often clogged with queues of them.
Leading the call for fast action to start improving the street was Sir Peter Rogers, chair of the New West End Company: “The current state of Oxford Street is unacceptable – that’s our starting position. Everything we argue is measured against a long term aim, which is we want to see the West End maintain and improve its world status as a retail district.” Traffic, air quality and public realm are key problems, he added.
“Whilst pedestrianisation is extremely difficult……businesses do want traffic free zones, and they do want them in certain areas at certain times of the day. How we get there is going to be complex and difficult.”
“There are three things that immediately would leap to mind: a 20% year on year reduction in buses, now, to take out excess capacity…..we could start immediately making buses operate in a zero emissions mode, rather than just being capable of it, and we can accelerate the ultra low emissions zone to 2018, rather than leave it to 2020.”
Tom Platt, head of policy and communications at Living Streets, was more keen on a big bang approach: “We can’t tinker around the edges – we can’t be about small reductions here an
Councillor Robert Davis of Westminster was cautiously in favour: “Of course there are lots of benefits, but one has to think it through.” He was concerned about displacing traffic into other areas.
While acknowledging that buses were a complex issue, Transport for London’s managing director for planning, Alex Williams, confirmed his organisation was on the case, and is likely to take a wider review of bus capacity in central London.
“We have a package of measures that we are likely to go out to consultation on this autumn, which will see a significant reduction in bus flows on Oxford Street, probably 20-40%, will be more like 40%, and that would be to get a much better understanding of people’s views on changes to those routes.” He promised a phased delivery from next year – “a suite of changes that we hope to introduce prior to the opening of Crossrail at the end of 2018”. And he recognized the need for more fundamental review of buses in London. The introduction of the new hop-on, hop-off bus ticket will further change the way travellers use buses.
Rogers was against trying radical, full scale pedestrianisation. “We can’t damage accessibility – it’s an £8 billion retail environment, and it would be crazy to lurch into an experiment which destroys that contribution to the economy, simply by accident.”
Davis noted that Crossrail stations are deliberately designed not to open into Oxford Street, but into adjacent streets. “You are going to get some very good public realm where the stations are.”
“While we are dealing with all of these longer term issues on Oxford Street, the situation today is unacceptable,” repeated Rogers. “We must take out excess capacity of buses starting now. So from now to Christmas, that is a very long time, and we should be starting to take out the first tranche of excess capacity very quickly – and that’s 20% by this time next year.”
“That will make some of the work around traffic modelling and displacement an awful lot easier than trying to deal with existing traffic problems.”
Platt was supportive: “I certainly echo the need to get on with this, and I think one of the things that we should be very clearly calling for, now that we have the manifesto pledge, is actually a clear timetable and delivery plan of how pedestrianisation is going to happen.”
LPA Perspective: So pedestrianisation in some form is likely to happen, it’s now down to the committee to beat up TfL so that it gets on with sorting out bus routes. Crossrail, described as a “gamechanger”, will simply deliver too many pedestrians for the existing pavements.
Yes, sorting out buses will be complicated – but it has to be done. And, taking account of the volume of data that TfL now has from Oyster users, modelling how people use buses ought to be a whole lot easier than it was. Rogers has made constructive suggestions that do not require a big bang approach.
Wheel forward three years, and the pedestrianisation, in some form, ought to be at least partially in place. Will there be travelators? Or a shuttle of some sort? Enterprising businesses ought to come up with some imaginative solutions, which the public bodies need to embrace.
One worrying aspect about the committee’s discussions, was that it is clear technology is changing the way our streetscapes need to be laid out – but that the members of the committee are not up to speed on this. For example, Uber, the taxi app, provides a taxi on demand – effectively doing away with the need for taxi ranks. While the representative from the London Taxi Drivers Association was never going to point this out, this is one way in which taxis and ranks could easily and effectively be designed out of Oxford Street, their filthy diesel exhausts removed for ever.