Oxford Street needs to be pedestrianised. There is a growing consensus about this among traders, transport operators, and local councils. The question is when and how.
The “when” is easiest to answer. The new east-west Crossrail line starts operating through Central London in four years’ time. It will generate a new surge of people coming to the West End through Tottenham Court Road and Bond Street stations. Peak hour passenger numbers at these stations are forecast to nearly double over the next decade.
Oxford Circus and Oxford Street are serious accident blackspots, and can barely cope with existing pedestrian numbers alongside a solid wall of taxis and buses. It will be impossible for them to manage even larger flows. By the time Crossrail opens, Oxford Street will need to be wholly or largely free of road traffic.
The imminence of Crossrail is boosting development across Oxford Street and the West End. City A.M. reported last week that, this year alone, property deals worth £1bn are in train, “with investors flocking to get a slice of London’s busiest shopping street”. One extra storey of building along the street adds the equivalent floor space of the Shard, further worsening congestion. This will ultimately undermine the economy of the West End, unless there is pedestrianisation.
Then there is the air quality crisis. Clean Air in London estimates that over 1,300 Londoners have died prematurely this year due to air pollution. Oxford Street is among the worst offenders – not just in London but in the world, according to researchers at King’s College London. Nitrogen dioxide levels in the street breached the annual legal EU limit just four days into 2015, and over the course of the year, these poisonous emissions are set to be 90 times the legal limit. Tinkering won’t resolve this crisis: reducing traffic through London’s premier retail district is required to make the air safe to breathe.
How is it to be done? Westminster and Camden councils, together with local traders and TfL, have been scoping options for full or partial pedestrianisation. There needs to be an improvement to rear entrances and exits of stores on the street so that taxis can take alternative routes. Buses would terminate at either end, at or near Marble Arch or Holborn, or take other routes. One possibility is to retain a single shuttle bus service along Oxford Street. These changes could be made in stages, aiming for completion by 2019.
Pedestrianisation is a golden opportunity to improve the West End, as well as reducing congestion and pollution. Oxford Street should join Trafalgar Square, St Pancras and King’s Cross and become a “wow” place to be, not just to shop.
London needs to learn more from Copenhagen and its inspirational architect of public space, Jan Gehl, about the promotion of traffic-free zones and radical enhancement to street design. “I have not been impressed,” Gehl said of London recently. “I know that Piccadilly Circus has been improved, but I have never felt the same urgency in this city as in other places.” A better balance between traffic and people, and greater priority for walkers and cyclists, are crucial. Oxford Street is the place to start.