Revolutionary Road: A New Plan For Tottenham Court Road
Camden Council recently approved a scheme to revamp Tottenham Court Road. The scheme is quite significant in its own right but the thinking behind it also says a lot about current ideas on how best to use limited highway space in central London. Here we take a look at the issues of this particular scheme and the significance it may have for developments in the future.
Going back to the beginning
Tottenham Court Road was named quite simply because it was the road from St Giles at the eastern extremity of Oxford Street to a mansion called Tottenham Court. Surprisingly little is known about Tottenham Court which was roughly located where the current Tottenham Court Road meets today’s Euston Road. We can presume that Tottenham Court Road wasn’t originally an important road. We can also presume it was demolished before the coming of the Euston Road (then called New Road). By then the road must have had some local strategic importance.
Both the 20th century traffic history of Tottenham Court Road and Camden’s plans for the future rely on the fact that Gower Street and its continuation into Bloomsbury Street, a road almost as wide, parallels Tottenham Court Road for its entire length. Gower Street was (and is) a significant road in its own right with many historical figures having lived there and much of University College London being based along the road. We know it was served by public transport in the late Victorian times as, in the early 1900s, a certain Miss Prism identifies her handbag by means of various marks including “injury it received through the upsetting of a Gower Street omnibus in younger and happier days”.
On the Tube
Tottenham Court Road is also well served by Tube lines. Most famously Tottenham Court Road station stands at its southern end. It is currently served by just the Northern Line but by the start of 2016 will be served by the Central Line again and of course from December 2018 by Crossrail, even though the specific Crossrail entrances will both be south of Oxford Street and not in Tottenham Court Road. Whilst TfL’s inability to save the entirety of the Paolozzi murals there as part of the station rebuild has caused consternation in some quarters, but as our friends over at Londonist pointed out, the complete rebuild and redesign of one of the Underground’s busiest stations sadly requires a sense of realism as to what is achieveable. Nor, despite the media outrage, was this a decision that had been made secretly behind the scenes (we covered the murals back in 2009 and TfL were honest about their intentions at the time). The impressive spaces and elements of the new station that are open already though suggest that at least their loss will not be in vain.
Elsewhere, Goodge Street station (originally opened with the name of Tottenham Court Road) is an easily forgotten Northern Line station that is roughly in the middle of Tottenham Court Road. It is part of a relatively small family of Zone 1 central London stations that is still only accessible by lifts and emergency staircase. Other examples are Covent Garden, Russell Square and Regent’s Park – all of which are relatively close by. The lifts at Goodge Street appear to cope quite well with the normal station numbers but one suspects there would be issues if there was a large passenger increase.
Finally, at the northern extremity of Tottenham Court Road is Warren Street station which is served by the Victoria Line as well as the Northern Line. Brief mention also ought to be made of Euston Square Underground station which has an entrance on Gower Street. So, all in all, Tottenham Court Road is quite well served by the Underground and will be similarly so by Crossrail in December 2018. On top of that, if it goes ahead, one can expect a Crossrail 2 station at each end of the road one day.
On the buses
Tottenham Court Road is also a significant route for buses – as one would expect from a road that links Euston with central London including Oxford Street. Camden Council in their
Firstly, we can’t ignore the fact that Tottenham Court Road (TCR) is a crucial mass transit corridor with over 4,000 people an hour getting on and off buses not to mention the thousands more who travel through. The street serves some of London’s busiest bus routes, including 24, 29, 134, and 73 and all of these routes carry tens of thousands of passengers an hour. To put these numbers into perspective, these routes alone carry more passengers than the Croydon Tramlink or the whole of the Manchester Metrolink system.
The sixties: one way forward
The sixties were a time of change. The area around Tottenham Court Road seems to epitomise this whilst much of Gower Street appears to have survived almost unaltered. Among the more dramatic changes relating to Tottenham Court Road and nearby were: Centre Point at the junction of Oxford Street, the new Euston station minus Doric Arch just to the north of the road on the other side of the Euston Road and possibly, most famously, the futuristic wonder of the Post Office Tower around 200 metres away. Another great symbol of sixties roadbuilding, the underpass, resulted in the Euston Underpass being built just to the north of Tottenham Court Road in 1966.
Whilst there must have been earlier road widening schemes, the 1960s also saw what must have been the most dramatic change to date of Tottenham Court Road. On 1st May 1961 Tottenham Court Road and Charing Cross Road north of Cambridge Circus was made one way northbound. Southbound traffic was routed one way along Gower Street, Bloomsbury St and Shaftsbury Avenue east of Cambridge Circus. This was not intended to be the final solution and for the next twenty years new buildings were set further back from their replacements leading to a rather erratic building line which either gives the street a delightful character or makes it look a complete mess – depending on you point of view.
One must wonder how much this massive one way scheme actually helped the flow of traffic, but a major factor was probably that both Tottenham Court Road and Gower St were, for the most part, sufficiently wide for three useful lanes but not four. One way schemes were very much in vogue at the time as a solution to the rise in private traffic in the early 1960s and Tottenham Court Road/Gower St must have been seen as one of the best opportunities available.
What is surprising when one considers the road layout is that the London County Council agreed to Centre Point being built much higher than normally permitted in return for making it possible to rebuild the traffic intersection at St Giles Circus as a roundabout or gyratory system – the latter, along with one way streets, being very much seen as as a vital component in future road schemes. In the end the road layout at St Giles never was used as a roundabout and the dispensation for building Centre Point taller seemed to only produce the initial benefit of having a sheltered but windswept underused bus stand located in the heart of London.
Who owns the road?
It is hard to find out what exactly happened in those days of the 1960s but a relevant question may well be to wonder who was responsible for Tottenham Court Road. In London responsibility for roads has always been a bit of a fudge with government, regional and local responsibility all having played their part in the past. It may be that the objectives of the London County Council were thwarted a local level. As we shall see later “who owns the road?,” is still a vital modern day question that needs to be taken into account when considering road schemes.
The rise and fall of the one-way scheme
Whilst one-way streets, gyratorys, pedestrian subways and banning right turns were once very popular with traffic engineers, the slow insidious effect on of these measures on local communities and how people adapt to them has meant that they are now very much out of favour. Much money has been spent in the past few years removing many of these schemes that were put in with so much enthusiasm as an answer to traffic problems many years earlier. Most notable in recent years have been the Pall Mall and Piccadilly one way scheme and the Aldgate gyratory. In the pipeline are schemes for Vauxhall one way system and the Elephant & Castle gyratory which will be “peninsularised” in a similar manner to the former roundabout at the southern end of Westminster Bridge.
Most of the disadvantages of these 1960s ideas are pretty obvious in retrospect but there are one or two that aren’t. An early disadvantage was that it was extremely inconvenient for trolleybuses as the wires had to be relocated and restrung. More significantly, the multi-lane highways were not very trolleybus friendly as the ability to deviate from the intended path was very limited. This must have been one of the considerations for getting rid of them.
A further problem was that in the 1960s the objective was to speed up traffic flow and not enough consideration was given to the problem of maximising use of road space. One way schemes are all very well but they often mean longer, more circuitous journeys and hence they increase traffic just by existing. In many ways banned right turns are even worse in this respect and nowadays much more is done to accommodate them (especially for buses). Often it is the case that advantage can be take of a right filter to allow some concurrent pedestrian movement that would otherwise require its own phase. In the above diagram it can be seen that in the near future that southbound buses will turn right from Tottenham Court Road into Oxford Street – something that hasn’t been possible for over 50 years.
It took a while to really appreciate some of the effects of these measures on Tottenham Court Road. Subways, intended to allow pedestrians to cross safely, were difficult to use if you were infirm. The fear of being a victim of crime and the detour forced on pedestrians to use them resulted in pedestrians either not making their journey (and thus segregating neighbourhoods) or former pedestrians now making the journey by car. Cyclists too found that road traffic was much faster and they were expected to make dangerous manoeuvres to get into the appropriate lane. No special provision was made for them.
London Transport buses were generally quick to feel the effect of one way schemes. Passenger numbers could be seen to drop (20% has been quoted in some cases) as people could no longer be taken to where they wanted to go, or they couldn’t work out where to catch their bus. Routes became longer and, inevitably, the traffic built up to its previous level to match the perceived extra road space. This left the bus operator with no benefits but a lots of disadvantages.
Clustering around Tottenham Court Road
For many years small areas of London had clearly identifiable areas of trade where similar businesses or shops clustered together. So it was that Fleet Street was identified with newspapers, Charing Cross Road with books and the area around Denmark Street with musical instruments. Up until the early seventies the southern end of Tottenham Court Road was very much the place for electronics. This was then transformed into a mecca for those involved with early hobbyist computers. Today, outside the world of law, finance and politics, there is the very notable exception of Hatton Garden, but apart from that these distinct enclaves are largely gone. Despite this, the northern end of Tottenham Court Road still has a cluster of furniture stores, dominated by Heals, and, whilst a shadow of its former self, there are still many electronic and computer shops at the southern although many of them now are High Street chain stores.
As Tottenham Court Road becomes “just another shopping street” the proprietors clearly cannot rely on trade coming in because of its prominence in certain fields. With Oxford Street nearby (and, crucially, in a different borough) it is inevitable that Tottenham Court Road will increasingly have to make itself attractive to draw shoppers to the area.
The Crossrail Effect
The catalyst for change for Tottenham Court Road in recent years has been Crossrail, although probably not in the ways one might expect.
It has had a major effect for various reasons. The first of which is construction resulting in the worksite taking up much of Charing Cross Road. The requirements for lorry moments has probably led to any scheme for Tottenham Court Road redevelopment being delayed. This in turn has led to what many, but not all, would regard as time for a more enlightened attitude to redevelopment to develop in recent past years and ultimately, perhaps, a bolder scheme that might have otherwise been proposed.
Possibly the most important Crossrail effect has been that the construction site at Tottenham Court Road station led to road width restrictions that resulted in a 30% decrease in traffic. It is reported that there has been no discernible increase in traffic on routes nearby in consequence. Everyone now knows that once you increase the road space more traffic will be the result – a concept known as Induced Demand. Camden Council clearly, and very sensibly, want to get a scheme in place so that the benefits of more highway space are well used and not just ceded back to motorised traffic by default. They also want to make sure that 30% of traffic doesn’t come back.
There are, of course, also the more obvious Crossrail effects. Much has been made the “urban realm” aspect but this has generally been seen by Crossrail to be aimed at the area immediately surrounding the stations and the Crossrail proposals for Tottenham Court Road station urban realm are no different. The Camden proposals, affecting the entire length of the road, go, literally, much further, and are more in line with the suggestions of the Arup report on the subject. This was published last year and mentioned in our article looking at “How Quickly Will Crossrail’s New Trains Fill Up?”.
Also in line with the aforementioned Arup report is the issue of people getting from the Crossrail (or Tube) station to their final destination. The suggestion in the report was that the real solution to handling the large number of people involved is to make walking routes pleasant so the the final leg of the journey can be made on foot.
Camden Council’s scheme gets approval
On 23rd January 2015, the BBC reported that Camden Council had approved funding for their £41 million scheme. It is clearly bold and limits through two way traffic in Tottenham Court Road to buses and cycles from the hours of 0800 – 1900 Monday to Saturday. As can be seen from the montage the intention is to make it very much more friendly for pedestrians both on the main road itself and in some of the side streets. Naturally displaced traffic will use Gower Street which will also revert to two-way use.
The boldness of the scheme may come as a bit of a surprise but Camden have always been one of the most pro-cycling London Boroughs and no doubt see this as a way to encourage pedestrians, cyclists and bus users. That said, the scheme has had many years of gestation and it is notable that when TfL redesigned and implemented a new traffic scheme at Euston Circus it did so with the specific intention of making it suitable for a two-way Tottenham Court Road. The scheme would probably not have been possible with the old road layout at Euston Circus. It is notable that Euston Circus consultation proposals at the time merely referred to “enabling future provision of southbound bus movements through the junction to link into separate proposals for a southbound contraflow bus lane on Tottenham Court Road”. This seems to fit in with original plans which just involved providing a contraflow bus line in Tottenham Court Road – something that experience in Piccadilly now shows is not entirely satisfactory in a shopping street and brings its own set of problems.
Taxi drivers not happy
A very notable omission from the short list of vehicles allowed in Tottenham Court Road is of course taxis. This prompted the reaction quoted in the BBC article from Steve McNamara, general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association (LTDA) calling the scheme “madness” and stating:
“To consider banning taxis from Tottenham Court Road could be described at best as farcical …No thought has been given to the hundreds of thousands of people that get picked up and set down by taxis in the metropolis everyday.
This does seem rather like an ill advised and misleading comment. The point is that taxis will only be banned from Tottenham Court Road as a through route. Taxis and delivery vehicles will be permitted to enter via designated side streets to pick up, set down or deliver for significant sections of the street but will also be forced to leave via a side road as well (in order to prevent them using it as through route).
Steve McNamara says that a legal challenge will be mounted but it is hard to see anything other than this being dismissed and it is even harder to envisage it delaying implementation of the scheme. Camden have clearly properly assessed this and Camden Councillor Phil Jones said taxis and other vehicles would be able to access 60% of the street via side roads. He continues:
A detailed assessment of the impacts of allowing taxis to use the full length of Tottenham Court Road has been undertaken. The assessment has highlighted that allowing taxis to use the street would lead to more traffic congestion, worse air quality and increased road traffic collisions.
Given that proper consideration has been given it is very hard to see a legal challenge going anywhere. On the other hand one can quite understand why taxi drivers are alarmed. It is probably not Tottenham Court Road that bothers them so much but the precedent set – what if neighbouring City of Westminster Council applied similar restrictions to the cabbies’ favourite through route of Oxford Street?
Throwing down the gauntlet
At the end of the day, Camden’s Tottenham Court Road scheme, on its own, is not really a game changer. With the luxury of having Gower Street running parallel, the unwanted traffic can be re-routed and the street can be made much more pleasant without particular difficulty. What does make it particularly interesting though is the issue of how the City of Westminster and the New West End Company will react to this in order not to lose business from Oxford Street. And then, regardless of what they do or don’t do, how this fits in with other schemes in the pipeline.
Now that the Camden scheme for Tottenham Court Road is definitely going ahead, it is hard imagine that the City of Westminster and the Oxford Street and Regent Street shops it represents are going to wait until 2018 without doing something in response. Whether that would just be a general attempt to improve Oxford Street as it is or to do something further remains to be seen.
The problem of Oxford Street is nowhere as easy to solve as Tottenham Court Road as the primary issue tends to be what to do with any displaced traffic. This is not easy given that Westminster is averse to putting yet more traffic onto the parallel streets.
And here lies the crux of the matter. For what people, who should really know better, forget is that it is the City of Westminster who calls the shots here not the Mayor. The old joke goes that civil servants at the DfT treat any incoming Minister’s pronunciation of “Bombardier” as a shibboleth. If they say it like the beer, then they require some transport education before they are allowed to make pronouncements. Perhaps when it comes to the planning and engineering of London’s streets the status of Oxford Street should be treated the same way.
If so, then there are sadly a far few proponents of ideas who fail the test, undermining their own case by calling on the Mayor to do something about the street. See for example this Liberal Democrat proposal which states that
In the long-term, as demand for bus services accessing the road reduces, this report argues that the Mayor should fully pedestrianise Oxford Street, creating the longest pedestrian shopping street in Europe.
In contrast stands Mayoral hopeful Christian Wolmar, a man passionately in favour of banning traffic in Oxford Street and other places. Way back in 2012 he outlined his vision. This was more recently reiterated in the Evening Standard with a CGI illustration of what Oxford Street would look like. The important thing to note however is that Mr Wolmar makes no claim that he would make these schemes happen if he were mayor. That may seem on the surface to simply be good politics, but he is also presumably astute enough to realise that when it comes to Oxford Street all he could do if he were mayor is to exhort and encourage.
The bigger picture
One gets the feeling that a lot is going to happen regarding roads in central London in the next few years. In 2020 the Ultra Low Emission Zone is expected to kick in leading to a further short term reduction in traffic. TfL are already making noises about working with the freight industry to make deliveries easier but at times of lesser traffic flow. They are also making noises about the need to work smarter. In addition to the Tottenham Court Road scheme, the TfL board has now approved its own major scheme for a cycle highway from Tower Hill to Royal Oak via the Victoria Embankment which will have a significant effect on other traffic. Expect to see central London become more pedestrian and cycle friendly over the next few years and expect to see much debate as to how the remaining road space should be used.
The revolution cometh, but will it be pedestrianised..?