For years, London mayors and mayoral hopefuls have aspired to pedestrianising Oxford Street. For just as many years, they’ve failed. Some of them have made it sound so easy: just block the road off at each end, buy in some tubs of shrubs, install a leisurely tram and the job’s done. If only. The disruption to bus services, the knock-on congestion effects and the concerns of local residents make the project complex and fraught. Throw in the doubts of the big shops that the benefits for trade might not be as great as is routinely claimed, and the slate of obstacles is pretty full.
But now, it seems, the stars required for real progress are aligned. Transport for London has published a consultation on Oxford Street’s transformation, which shows that they mean business. It says the same about the Labour mayor’s deputy for transport and Tory Westminster Council, who are the document’s co-signatories. Matters would not have got this far had not other key interested parties been brought on board at least enough not to be howling opposition.
To read it is to see some of the problems outlined above. Boiled down to its essence, it says the more buses, taxis and delivery vehicles you keep out of the nation’s most famous shopping street, the more you can change it from an avenue of over-crowding and pollution into a pleasant inland retail esplanade. This much we knew. What is also spelled out is the need to mitigate the impacts of such measures on the surrounding area, which is home to many people (not of all them filthy rich, by the way).
The number of buses using Oxford Street, which can be overpowering, is already to be cut by 40%. More could be stopped near Marble Arch or Oxford Circus or diverted down neighbouring roads. Again, there is no free pass to meet these goals: space has to found for route termination points; those who live or work on Wigmore Street might not be enthused.
Other tensions will arise: black cab drivers will be pleased that national government is being lobbied for powers to control pedicabs, but some won’t like the prospect of having their present unrestricted access to Oxford Street curtailed. The same will go for some of their passengers. Cycling groups will demand their own special provision, but the consultation points out that large numbers of cyclist might not be compatible with large numbers of pedestrians, some of them visually impaired. There will probably have to be north-south vehicle crossing points.
All of these potential conflicts will need to be carefully evaluated and then resolved as peaceably as possible. That won’t be straightforward, but the unity of purpose behind the consultation seems to bode well. Alex Jan, director of city economics at Arup who has done impressive work on Oxford Street and London’s congestion problem, regards this as the best chance in 40 years to sort out the legendary shopping street.
Of course, new circumstances have concentrated minds on a task some think really needed to happen ten years ago. Heightened concerns about road safety, air quality and competition from new indoor malls are all part of that, but the biggest game changer has been the approach of Crossrail, which will disgorge even more human life onto Oxford’s Street’s heaving pavements from late next year.
Its implications cannot be ignored – a fact that also provide political cover for Khan, Westminster and TfL if and when resistance grows. The wider West End Partnership of boroughs and BIDs, has major plans for the area, including more commercial space, and these can only work to best effect if the transport and general street environment support them. There’s still a long, long way to go, but the direction of travel for Oxford Street at last looks hopeful and right.
You can read and respond to TfL’s Oxford Street consultation here.