The removal of traffic from Oxford Street, still the capital’s most famous retail avenue, has been an ambition of London Mayors and hopefuls almost since they were invented and thought a good idea long before that.
Way back in 1972, Greater London Council experts addressed “a travesty of conditions as they ought to be in a great capital city” by banning all motorised vehicles except buses, taxis and two-wheel varieties from Oxford Street between 7:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. except on Sundays in an attempt to resolve “the conflict between its twin roles of shopping centre and major traffic route” and reduce the high number of accidents that took place there.
But the problems with Oxford Street did not disappear. In recent years, the number of buses using it has been reduced and the coming of Crossrail – the Elizabeth Line as it is now called – which will see still larger numbers of people disgorged from Bond Street and Tottenham Court stations, has concentrated minds on the need to complete the job.
Sadiq Khan has produced a programme for doing so. Last year it was announced that the whole of the street will be pedestrianised by 2020 and earlier this month Khan and Westminster’s deputy leader Robert Davies published plans for the key western section, running from Oxford Circus to Orchard Street, to be implemented by December next year when the Elizabeth Line too starts to operate. (See an artist’s impression above).
Do not underestimate what forming these proposals has entailed. Some advocates of pedestrianisation down the years have given the impression that little more is required than roadblocks at Marble Arch and Centrepoint and a few pot plants spread along the road. In reality, closing Oxford Street to traffic will have huge implications from the whole of the West End and beyond, all of which must be managed and mitigated.
The resulting document, now out for public consultation, is informed by months of traffic modelling, creative compromise and consensus-building involving the major retailers, local residents, Transport for London and Westminster Council, whose immediate responsibility Oxford Street is. There’s an array of competing interests to be reconciled and not everyone can get their way.
Concerns and opposition have already been expressed, some more worthy of consideration than others. Boris Johnson’s former part-time cycling commissioner Andrew Gilligan has pronounced the plans “an unqualified disaster for cycling in London, perhaps the single biggest blow it has suffered in years”.
This rather grand assertion is augmented with a suggestion that a segregated cycle track should be installed on Oxford Street, a notion rather at odds with the creation of a tranquil retail boulevard where children play. A certain sort of cycling activist seems to believe that segregated tracks are the solution to everything from ingrowing toenails to original sin. They will bombard the consultation and should be patiently but completely ignored.
More serious are the objections of residents’ groups, at least one of which has pledged to fight the scheme all the way. Their main concern, as Fitzrovia News has reported, is that the displacement of traffic, especially buses, will bring gridlock and pollution to neighbourhood streets, which often have small business and retail cultures of their own.
In this, they are maintaining a long history of localised opposition to moves to lessen Oxford Street traffic, including the one-off Very Important Pedestrian days held in recent years. Their concerns feed into Westminster’s Conservative councillor group and City Hall: Tory councillor Paul Church, who represents the West End ward, has recently tweeted his displeasure with traffic congestion in Soho he attributed to Regent Street being closed to traffic: local Tory London Assembly member Tony Devenish, also a councillor for Knightsbridge and Belgravia, has urged residents to make their views known to the consultation.
One measured view of the plans for the first pedestrianisation stage is that they are generally sound, but that the detailed implementation of some aspects will be crucial to success. The re-routing of buses is seen as a legitimate concern, transcending any narrow parochialism, and will be an issue for the full pedestrianisation project too, which will have impacts across Westminster’s eastern border with Camden into Holborn and even on towards the City. How the new pedestrian space is looked after will be vital too. Then there is the question of growth in office and commercial space likely to be stimulated by the Elizabeth Line, and how that is squared with the dangers of over-development and resistance to it.
It’s been a good, consensual start from Mayor Khan and his deputy for transport, Val Shawcross, on solving one of Central London’s most difficult problems. They should listen sympathetically to reasonable critics but not allow their forward progress to be stalled.