Transforming Oxford Street Part 1: The Bustterfly Effect

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Some readers may already be aware of the current consultation on the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street between Orchard Street (just to the west of Selfridges) and Oxford Circus. This is part of a programme to realise some of the Mayor’s manifesto commitments. Unfortunately, in the minds of many, the scheme has become equated with removing buses (and other remaining traffic) from this section of Oxford Street.

It’s only collateral damage

In reality, in the context of the overall scheme, the removal of buses from Oxford Street could be seen as a minor piece of collateral damage – it is certainly not what the scheme is primarily about. That is not how local residents, concerned that all the traffic will be diverted into local streets, see it. It has also not gone down too well with many proponents of bus usage – both individuals and organisations. Consequently, the scheme is controversial. But then, if it wasn’t controversial it would have been done years ago.

We put the cart before the horse

The logical thing to do would be to look first at the scheme as a whole, its objectives and how it is trying to achieve them. But, as is often the case, focus gets drawn to one aspect of the scheme and, in this case, this is that removal of buses. So, to get this out the way and enable us to look at the total scheme without being distracted by bus issues, we have decided to focus in part 1 of this series on the issue of removing buses from Oxford Street.

Rerouting or curtailing bus routes has given rise to a lot of comment but it seems that, up to now, no-one, individual or organisation, has looked at all documents associated with the consultation to see what the plans actually entail. In particular, when looking in detail at some of the bus routes involved a slightly different picture emerges from the general overall picture given in the consultation.

Not an easy job

When Sadiq Khan was elected Mayor in 2016 it was soon clear that a priority during his tenure would be removing traffic from Oxford Street. Furthermore, the objective of doing this for almost the entire length of Oxford Street by the time the Elizabeth line opened in December 2018 meant that timescales were inevitably going to be tight.

A quiet moment, traffic-wise, in Oxford Street

TfL and the new deputy Mayor for Transport, Val Shawcross, were quickly on the case. Unsurprisingly, they quickly realised that you could not just look at Oxford Street in isolation. The effect of removing buses from the street would not just lead to localised effects. At the same time, they were aware that bus passenger traffic in central London was dropping sharply and this was largely due to increased traffic congestion. This meant that people walked or took the Tube or other means to complete their journey – or did not make the journey at all. On top of that, the basic bus network structure had not really changed much over the years and seemed to be based on what was historically seen as the desired network. A thorough overhaul of the bus network seemed well overdue and now was the time to do it.

Considering the bigger picture

As Shawcross explained to the now-defunct TfL Finance and Policy Committee shortly after taking office, there was no point in looking at Oxford Street in isolation when any pedestrianisation scheme would have ramifications throughout most of Zone 1. Or, as she put it, you could well find yourself having to alter the stopping arrangements in Trafalgar Square as a consequence of changes you made in Oxford Street.

It was quickly decided to act on a long-suggested plan to significantly reduce the number of buses travelling along Oxford Street. The number of buses, many of them often nearly empty, had almost become a standing joke. It certainly seemed to many members of the public that buses in Oxford Street couldn’t move because of the presence of other buses.

Broken links

The reduction in the number of buses going along Oxford Street appears to have taken place without too much concern on the part of the public. TfL calculated the number of ‘broken links’ (assumed to be per day) where a bus passenger could no longer make their through journey at around 35,000. Passengers affected would either have to change buses where before they did not have to, walk for part of their journey, find some other means of making the journey – or simply not make it. Some fare-paying passengers who now had to change buses would not experience an increase in cost because they had a Travelcard or the daily bus cap already applied to them, or because they were able to take advantage of the new hopper fare. Even so, changing buses would be an inconvenience.

London Travelwatch regard the number broken links with extreme concern. Looking at the absolute numbers does make it seem worrying, but the number of people affected amounts to around 700 reasonably filled buses. This is a significant number of people but to what extent each is affected varies. For some it might just mean a slightly longer walk. Taken in the context of total bus travel within Zone 1 for the whole day it is still significant but nevertheless only affecting a small minority of bus travellers. TfL take the view that such inconveniences tend to be short-lived as there is a high rate of ‘churn’ in bus travel, so over time people adjust their place of work, places they visit for leisure and even the location of their home in the light of the transport system as it is.

Upside downtown

There is also, arguably, the upside of the reduction of buses along Oxford Street as those buses that remain can make their journeys more quickly. There seems to be no evidence published concerning this, one way or the other, and the suspicion (at least here in LR Towers) is that the void is likely being filled by more taxis taking advantage of the extra available road space.

Fewer buses means more taxis?

The results of reducing the number of buses through Oxford Street is important in the light of the proposed next stage as, according to the consultation, it is intended to reduce the number of through buses serving the Oxford Street area from nine to just two. The routes chosen to remain are the 139 and the 390. These were apparently chosen to minimise the number of passengers affected by the withdrawal of through routes. It is believed a lot of existing passengers who currently use the bus will take advantage of the Elizabeth line once it is opened, so a frequent service on the two remaining routes will be sufficient.

The key to the plan

To understand why it was decided to withdraw so many through routes one needs to understand the plan for the remaining routes and the reasons behind it.

Map showing Wigmore Street at the top. It also shows Henrietta Place, Cavendish Square and Margaret St

The obvious place to re-route the buses is along Wigmore Street to the north of Oxford Street. There are a couple of problems with this. The first problem is that the local street network probably could not cope with the volume of buses currently running down Oxford Street. Certainly, having sufficient bus stops in Wigmore Street would greatly hinder other traffic and the extra traffic would probably put a severe strain on various junctions. The second problem with Wigmore Street is that it really is too far from Oxford Street to expect people, possibly laden with shopping, to use it to catch their bus.

Junction of Henrietta Place and Chapel Place

The plan is not to use Wigmore Street, or at least not much of it, for buses but instead to use Henrietta Place, the south side of Cavendish Square and Margaret Street as the main route for buses – a route which is much closer to Oxford Street than Wigmore Street. Currently, the roads involved are a bit of a mess, traffic-wise, as traffic flow is designed to support the current main flows in Oxford Street and Wigmore Street. Nevertheless, the route is nice and wide and, for the most part, ideal as a bus route.

Overcoming objections

The use of Henrietta Place as a through route for buses does much to overcome the local residents’ objection that the displaced buses will clog up local traffic. The route will also be available to taxis and cycles – but not general traffic as entry will be restricted into Margaret Street. Whether taxis choose to use this route or use Wigmore Street instead is another matter.

Local protest

One of the objections to removing buses from Oxford Street is that people will have further to walk to a bus stop. There seems to be little evidence that people will have much further to walk to the nearest bus stop although it may be true that some fairly long walks may be involved if people wish to avoid changing buses.

Illusion or reality?

Part of the illusion of convenient bus stops in Oxford Street is down to the sheer number of them. This doesn’t take into account that not all routes currently stop at all stops. So a bus stop for a required route could easily be 200 metres away. There are even bus routes that go along part of Oxford Street but do not stop at any stops in Oxford Street – for instance, route 13 stops in Orchard Street by Selfridges and then goes along Oxford Street without serving any stops before next stopping in Park Lane.

Old Cavendish Street taken from Henrietta Place looking towards Oxford Street

The proposed bus routes via Henrietta Place will be around 200m at most from Oxford Street with quite a few side streets available to walk down. Some will be pedestrianised and the consultation emphasises the importance of clear ‘sight lines’ so that people can see the street in question and could even see buses using it. With around 17.5 buses per hour proposed in each direction just on the two routes already mentioned, it should not be long before people are reassured by the sight of a bus.

Old Cavendish St as proposed looking north from Oxford St

Another advantage of the proposed routeing for buses is that some department stores already have entrances on the route. So, for many shoppers, it is simply a case of leaving the store by a different exit. A lot of the success, or otherwise, may well depend on how well the department stores signpost their exits so that bus passengers leave the store by the most appropriate exit.

A map that sends the wrong message

Supposedly the only two through routes remaining

One of the problems with the perception of what the plan is for buses is the prominence of the above map showing the proposed through routes. Whilst correct in showing the only two through routes, this map gives many misleading impressions to anyone who casually glances at it.

Route 22

For starters, route 22 is not shown. Route 22 serves Berkeley Square in the heart of Mayfair. It uses Conduit Street to reach its terminus at Oxford Circus and is a replacement for the traditional route from Green Park to Oxford Circus via Davies Street previously operated by various different bus numbers over recent years. Not showing route 22 gives the impression that the south side of Oxford Street is no longer served.

It also fails to show the through routes that use Regent Street. These three routes (C2, 88, 453) serve Oxford Street but appear to be excluded because they don’t currently run along Oxford Street. It could be argued it is fairer to talk about the through bus service being reduced from twelve to five routes rather than from nine to two.

No buses at all, apparently

Somehow, betteroxfordstreet.org comes to the conclusion that there will be no through routes left. Their poster asks “If Oxford Street closes, what route would you take?”. A valid question certainly but the suggestion that all the through bus routes in the area will cease to exist in any form is somewhat wide of the mark and somewhat contradicting their earlier suggestion that all the buses will be displaced from Oxford Street and be rerouted along other streets.

A better route 73 than today?

More critically, neither the TfL map described above nor any other of the documents prominently shown in the consultation make it clear that there will be another route serving Henrietta Place just north of Oxford Street. One of the unsatisfactory features of this consultation is that the most detailed maps of bus routes, the bus flow maps – the ones that actually give the useful and accurate information for those who want the details of the plan – are very difficult to find.

Route 73 in blue

In fact, one of the busiest routes in London, the 73 (shown in dark blue on the bus flow map), will terminate very close to Henrietta Place. It last stop to set down passengers will be in Welbeck Street. Furthermore, the first stop for route 73 on its return journey to Stoke Newington is very conveniently located in Henrietta Street itself – just north of Old Cavendish Street. Route 12 (shown in red) will be going along three sides of Cavendish Square (including the south side) and also Margaret Street. Sadly it will be running empty whilst doing so – something that seems a bit of a wasted opportunity.

Maybe a better route 94 than apparent

The impression the consultation gives you for route 94

At the other end of Oxford Street, there is a similar situation where the future service portrayed seems to be worse than what is suggested by the detailed documents. Route 94 is a busy route from the west. On a map in the consultation document this is shown vaguely as terminating at Marble Arch. This would not be very convenient for passengers to Oxford Street and even less convenient to passengers from Oxford Street, as a trek across Park Lane is implied. At least part of the plan involves a new pedestrian crossing of the southbound lane of Park Lane.

North Row Bus Stand

This is not what is suggested by some of the more detailed design documents. In fact, Westminster City Council’s highly detailed maps are invaluable for trying to work out what the scheme actually involves, as they show all the proposed bus stands – and you don’t have proposals for bus stands unless they are intended to be used. Couple this with the bus flow maps – provided as part of the consultation, but not easy to find – and one realises that the proposal is actually for route 94 to terminate at a stand on North Row just south of Oxford Street. Although it will convey passengers as far as the stand (according to the flow map) it will run empty from the stand. This is understandable because this fairly narrow and unappealing road is not an ideal place pick up passengers.

Route 94 (in red) shown on bus flow map

Sadly, yet again, we have a situation where the buses will be running empty past stops where there is bound to be passenger demand. TfL claim that there isn’t the space to locate new westbound stops on Oxford Street between Orchard Street and Portman Street, yet this is fairly hard to believe. It may be the case that the proposed two-way Baker Street scheme would scupper any such proposal or it may be that, with a proposal to fully pedestrianise Oxford Street all the way to Marble Arch in future, TfL are anxious not to provide a new facility only to take it away again a couple of years later.

You ain’t seen nothin’ yet

There is little doubt that removing buses from Oxford Street between Oxford Circus and Orhcard St is going to be fairly dramatic. Yet, this is just the first stage. By December 2019 it is proposed to remove buses between Oxford Circus and Tottenham Court Road station as well.

The obvious alternative route to avoid the eastern half of Oxford Street is via Mortimer Street and Goodge Street. The problem is that Camden Council is adamant that it does not want traffic funnelling into Tottenham Court Road, as it would if it used Goodge Street, as this would impact badly on their scheme to heavily restrict traffic on this major road and make it much more pedestrian-friendly. So, next year could be more interesting and maybe we will see the Mayor and TfL relent just a little and allow traffic into the extreme east end of Oxford Street so that diverted traffic can avoid travelling along Tottenham Court Road.

TfL also consider that when traffic is removed from all of Oxford Street then the time will be right to see if it is desirable or practical to have a small, disabled-accessible minibus that accesses various locations very close to Oxford Street to assist the mobility impaired.

Further than originally planned

There are now even proposals to remove traffic from the extreme west of Oxford Street – something that was not originally envisaged. That might only involve a short stretch of road but will probably be extremely challenging.

Having looked at the bus issues, the intention is to follow on with an article looking at the overall scheme proposed for Oxford Street, why it is happening, what it is intended to achive and also look at how other forms of transport are affected. It may seem then that buses get off fairly lightly in the overall scheme of things.

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Written by Pedantic of Purley