Transforming Oxford Street Part 2: A Real Regeneration

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There have been proposals to pedestrianise Oxford Street for many years, but until now nothing has happened. This was partly because it was regarded as too difficult and partly because the City of Westminster (who ‘own’ the road) opposed it, due to the traffic that would spill onto the surrounding streets.

Deck the street

The problem of mixing traffic and people in Oxford Street has been recognised for a long time. In 1963, Colin Buchanan produced a report entitled ‘Traffic in Towns’, which proposed a pedestrian deck above Oxford Street with access to shops via the first floor. This was very much in keeping with the thought at the time that there should be elevated pedestrian ways (‘pedways’) enabling segregation of pedestrians and road traffic.

To this day the intentions of Colin Buchanan are disputed. It was seen by most people at the time as a desirable solution but others saw it as a warning as to what would become necessary if society did not tame the motor vehicle.

Halfway there

In the 1970s, the pavements of Oxford Street were getting very busy indeed. To the point where people were forced onto the road. The situation was rapidly becoming totally unacceptable and so the west part of Oxford Street was banned to all vehicles except for buses, taxis, cycles and essential delivery vehicles. This enabled the pavement to be widened, resulting in a street with a single lane in each direction with additional bays (where appropriate) instead of two traffic lanes in each direction as befitted a key traffic artery in the heart of London.

Once the restrictions had been put in place, over the course of a fortnight a tarmac-laying machine was used to widen the pavements and provide much-needed extra space for pedestrians. While it made them safer, it could not really be said that anything positive had specifically been done to improve the ambiance for pedestrians. Indeed the whole street looked like a complete mess.

Replace, renew, reclutter

At a later stage, the eastern (and more down-market) end of Oxford Street was treated in the same way. Over the years various measures were taken to improve the street itself, including replacing both the existing paved part and the tarmacked part of the pavement with new paving slabs. This helped improve the environment and end the temporary feel to the changes – but it still felt very cluttered. Indeed Oxford Street was often used as an example to show the effect of street clutter with numerous poles and signs everywhere – and even some poles with no signs on them. There was no real feeling that the pedestrian came first.

A controversial success

Apart from the need to make the pedestrian environment safer, the 1970s aimed to improve and make more reliable the journey time for bus travel – something that was already seen to be a major problem. As well as buses, taxis were allowed in Oxford Street. The impression given was that taxis were allowed partly to ‘fill up’ the otherwise largely empty road and because of the anticipated traffic disruption (and protests) if taxis were forced to use surrounding roads.

The scheme, pioneering in the UK at the time, attracted national attention – and protests. The objections, in the days of a time when the car was dominating people’s lives, were largely along the lines of: ‘I pay my road fund licence, why should buses get preferential treatment?’

And stagnation

In the next forty years or so little changed and the remaining traffic was still present. With pedestrian town centres elsewhere and competition from out-of-town shopping centres (and later online), there was much talk of full pedestrianisation – but talk is all that it was.

One of the main sticking points was that the City of Westminster (and its residents) did not want the remaining Oxford Street traffic to be diverted to the side streets which, for the most part, were not really appropriate for buses. Taxis, with their habit of stopping just anywhere to pick up a fare or set down passengers then spend time sorting out payment, were probably equally unwelcome.

The streets have a Monopoly

Not openly stated by the City of Westminster, but almost certainly in their thoughts, was the fact that shopping in the West End was much more than ‘ORB’ – Oxford Street, Regent Street and Bond Street. One is reluctant to pin the blame on a board game but Monopoly probably did much to reinforce the notion that shopping in the West End of London was largely focused on these three streets. It wouldn’t have been right not only to give preference specifically to Oxford Street traders, but also to do so in such a way that meant that other traders, who would be adversely affected by the displaced traffic, were disadvantaged.

What and why

Questions we often ask at London Reconnections are ‘what has changed?’ and ‘why now?’ The nebulous answers, in this case, are ‘just about everything’ and ‘for a whole host of reasons’.

The most obvious thing that has changed is the Mayor. Not only that but a Mayor who has a very different agenda from his two predecessors. We will expand on this shortly. The other thing that has changed is the attitude to, awareness of and legislative framework covering air pollution.

There has been some criticism of London Reconnections for ascribing uncertainty and its consequences too much on Brexit. In the case of environmental legislation though, the government – and Michael Gove in particular – have made it quite clear that environmental standards will not be lowered as a result of leaving the EU. There is even a claim that these will be tougher as the UK pursues its own legislation.

Choice or necessity?

The Mayor of London is a very powerful man, almost free to pursue his own agenda, but even the Mayor has to act within the legal framework – something Boris Johnson may be belatedly realising with the Garden Bridge. Oxford Street has been notorious for breaching EU regulations on pollution and particularly pollution generated by traffic. So, at London Reconnections, we would suggest that it wouldn’t have mattered much who had been elected Mayor, they would probably have still have had an agenda to rid Oxford Street of polluting traffic sooner rather than later. Perhaps the difference is simply that Sadiq Khan is pursuing this with gusto, rather than with reluctance.

An indication of how Oxford Street might look in future

In a way, given his manifesto, it would have been almost impossible for Sadiq Khan not to pursue a policy of pedestrianising Oxford Street. In many cases his manifesto commitments would have fallen apart like a pack of cards if he couldn’t even manage to honour them in Oxford Street – the most obvious and worthwhile location to make a start.

The manifesto is key

Sadiq Khan’s manifesto commitments were quite extensive. His determination to tackle pollution head-on was one of the more publicised ones, but others also feature heavily in the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street. He was determined to tackle road deaths and, in particular, pedestrian deaths from accidents involving buses – something that he hRas some control over. Just about the worse place in London for deaths and injuries from being hit by a bus is Oxford Street. If he couldn’t tackle this here, then it would have made a mockery of this policy. While completely meaningless as a valid statistical measurement, an indication of the problem is highlighted by the fact that by the end of the first week of 2018, Oxford Street has already had its first serious incident of a pedestrian being hit by a bus.

Another of Sadiq Khan’s policies is ‘healthy streets’ – making streets pleasant for pedestrians and encouraging people to walk. This is absolutely at the heart of his mayoralty and his Draft Transport Plan, more detailed and at variance from those of his predecessors, is built around this. Now people have reason to be sceptical about his plan being successful in the suburbs, but if it can work anywhere then surely Central London is the place it can work? After all bus passengers are inevitably also pedestrians. And if he can’t make Oxford Street a ‘healthy street’ – somewhere actually pleasant to visit as a pedestrian, then really he might as well abandon the entire basis on which his plan for a future London rests.

Why now?

We have already partially answered the question ‘why now?’, but we can actually get down to specific dates for the introduction. There has been a lot of coverage given to the impact the opening Elizabeth line will have on the number of people using Oxford Street. Much has centred on a holistic desire to improve the areas around stations to coincide with the line’s opening. Many would regard this as an opportunity not to be missed.

It’s official! The Elizabeth line will be part of London Underground

As was the case fifty years previously, there is great concern about the pavements just not being able to handle the extra people – particularly with all the street clutter and small street stalls that are on Oxford Street. So the reason ‘why now?’ is so that a safer and more ambient pedestrian area is in place on the day that the Elizabeth line opens.

The perceived urgency of the scheme has had another potential effect and that is on the nature of the scheme. Some more drastic radical ideas have been proposed but these generally require a final plan of a long-term nature. As far as the Mayor and his supporters are concerned, these can be disregarded at the outset because they do not provide a solution quickly enough. If such schemes do have any merit then that will have to wait for another day and be compatible with the current proposals which, by then, would have already been introduced.

Creating the false argument

Somehow this concern about Oxford Street being able to handle the passengers heading in and out of Bond Street station has morphed into an argument that buses are no longer necessary because people will arrive by the Elizabeth line. This would seem to be, fairly obviously, a false argument.

The notion, as originally suggested by various studies, is that many additional people will visit Oxford Street due to more convenient journeys that will be possible once the Elizabeth line opens. Consequently, because of the size of the increase in numbers of visitors, one must do what is necessary for them to continue their journey safely once leaving the station – even if it disadvantages some existing visitors to Oxford Street.

The suggestion, which has somehow come about, is that someone who currently takes a bus to Oxford Street would, by choice, use the Elizabeth line or the Tube in future to make their journey. This is clearly a very weak argument. It would only be true for a small number of existing bus users that the Elizabeth line would justify a change of mode of transport.

Indeed, when it comes to convenience, the accessibility statement in the recent consultation itself highlights the disadvantages to those of limited mobility in not being able to catch a bus and being forced to descend and rise in the tube system. This is, of course, true for everyone – not just those of limited mobility. For a person to willingly change their travel arrangements and use the Tube or Elizabeth line instead there must be a sufficient incentive to do so.

It does seem that opponents of the scheme are using the age-old tactic of choosing an argument for pedestrianisation that they can pull apart and show to be invalid, rather than acknowledging the real reason why it may be a good idea to time Oxford Street pedestrianisation with the opening of the Elizabeth line. The opening of the Elizabeth line would appear to be the perfect opportunity to implement pedestrianisation. It would also appear to be the most sensible time to do it – when the number of pedestrians is expected to rise rapidly. Implementing pedestrianisation takes time and it is, arguably, not practical to wait until pedestrian numbers are overwhelming.

So, the argument goes, if not now then when? Or, to quote Elvis, it’s now or never.

Almost free of step-free access

Where critics of the scheme have a much stronger argument is the lack of step-free access from the existing Tube to and from Oxford Street. For those with mobility problems, the existing Tube network really does not provide a satisfactory alternative.

Most important of the lines involved is the Central line which runs along Oxford Street, yet neither Oxford Circus nor Marble Arch stations will have step-free access. More to the point, even if they did, there are very few stations on the Central line that do have step-free access (in fact, almost none).

Not much can be made of the suggestion that the Central line will not be so critical now that the Elizabeth line largely parallels it. Only three stations on the Central line, apart from stations on Oxford Street itself, will be served directly by the Elizabeth line. With Oxford Street itself largely serving east-west bus routes that will be displaced, this lack of a viable alternative to buses for those with accessibility problems is somewhat disappointing, but step-free access at Underground stations is not something you can implement quickly and it can be enormously costly.

Hostile vehicle mitigation

Something that did not really feature in the existing plans but is now treated with extreme seriousness is Hostile Vehicle Mitigation (HVM) or ‘bollards’ to most people. In the past, there has been a fair amount of cynicism in comments on this site about these recent events on Westminster and London Bridge show just how seriously this needs to be taken, however. Furthermore, the only-partly-successful terror attack at Glasgow Airport shows how effective measures can be – even when the HVM design was executed less than perfectly (they were far too close to the airport entrance).

With Oxford Street probably having the highest density of pedestrians on the street in London and very little physically present (apart from the current multitude of street clutter) to prevent some kind of attack, this is now being taken much more seriously. One has to ask if this alone would have prompted plans for pedestrianising Oxford Street if the plans weren’t already in place. It has certainly had an effect on the plans, with no longer any thought of any kind of mobility bus running along Oxford Street itself.

Arrangements will be made for emergency vehicles to continue to have access, but there has been a shift to try and avoid having to allow delivery vehicles access outside shopping hours if that can be realistically achieved without causing too much inconvenience.

Why a change of heart?

What is possibly the most difficult thing to explain about the current plans is why the City of Westminster, so long opposed to such schemes, is suddenly very supportive. They do not appear to have openly stated this, but this seems to be because this plan is not just about Oxford Street.

Uninspiring street scene just north of Oxford Street

To fully understand Westminster’s point of view, one has to appreciate that Oxford Street may be at the heart of a shopping area, but it does not represent the whole. South of Oxford Street is Bond Street and the up-market, pedestrianised South Molton Street. To the north there are a multitude of small outlets similarly catering for more up-market clientele.

Very upmarket South Molton Street

Of particular note is the delightful St Christopher’s Place, accessed from Oxford Street by a very narrow passageway in the vicinity of Bond Street station. Yet this is just one of a number of side roads emanating from Oxford Street that are probably more worthy of ‘the Oxford Street treatment’ than Oxford Street itself.

Southern end of St Christopher’s place

One strongly suspects that Westminster treats this area north of Oxford Street as a potential jewel and it is the fact that the ‘Oxford Street’ scheme aims to work positively for this area that has swayed the City of Westminster’s opinion.

A better Wigmore Street

St Christopher’s Place from Wigmore Street

In the past, Wigmore Street to the north of Oxford Street has been treated as a potential alternative to Oxford Street for traffic. In the current plans even Wigmore Street becomes more pedestrian-friendly with lights having a pedestrian phase at every junction.

Proposals for Wigmore Street including raised table

Of special note is Marylebone Lane, again much more up-market than Oxford St. The attractive part of this road is located to the north of Wigmore Street. Of particular significance is the raised table in Wigmore Street to slow traffic in order to allow pedestrians to cross safely from St Christopher’s Place to a narrow alley that leads into Marylebone Lane. A light-controlled crossing was rejected because of the sheer volume of pedestrians expected to use this route!

Continuation of Marylebone Lane just north of Wigmore Street

The south end of Marylebone Lane, which is currently far less attractive than its northern counterpart, meets Oxford Street by the new northern entrance of Bond Street station. Immediately outside the Tube station the streetscape has been improved, but really this highlights just how awful the rest of this section of the road currently is and how it could be so much better. This is important, not just as a potential walking route, but also to provide access to buses that will be running not far to the north of Bond Street Station.

Looking north from outside the north entrance of Bond Street tube station

An alternative view

The City of Westminster could almost look at this as a scheme to improve the environment north of Oxford Street, with the fact that it pedestrianises Oxford Street itself just a feature. That TfL and the Mayor will be picking up the substantial bill is, of course, an added benefit.

Unappealing streetscene in the vicinity of Bond Street tube station northern entrance

First steps to implementation

The current consultation ended on 3rd January 2018. It is a consultation not a referendum so, whatever the result, the scheme will go ahead in some form. TfL will need to start arranging minor preparatory work around Easter, with more substantial work starting in the summer. Just the logistics of implementing the scheme will be a challenge and this was something not covered by the consultation.

The consultation for the next step, pedestrianisation of the east side of Oxford Street and related local streets, is due shortly if the most recent Customer Service and Operational Report is to be believed.

Upsetting and pleasing a lot of people

There will undoubtedly be people upset and aggrieved by the implementation of the scheme. The will also be many new visitors to the area who will like what they see and experience. A lot of people expect a shift in the type of people who visit, with those who would not be seen dead on a bus quite willing to take the Elizabeth line to either the Oxford Street shops or the more upmarket ones in the surrounding area.

The City of Westminster probably has a lot riding on this scheme economically and the Mayor has effectively staked his reputation on this scheme. The scheme will have a fairly drastic effect on the West End.

The question might be: ‘Is this a worthwhile scheme and should it happen?’ but, given various environmental, health and safety concerns a better question may be: ‘in reality was there ever really a choice?’

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Written by Pedantic of Purley