The Future of Oxford Street

Image by Magnus D via Flickr
Image by Magnus D via Flickr

You wait ages for a Mayoral candidate to back pedestrianising London’s busiest retail destination, then five come along at once

London elections always generate some interesting, eye-catching policy ideas. Some are whacky and absurd – the Thames Estuary Airport, for example – but many are just impractical or ahead of their time. However, it is a curious phenomenon that some of the more outlandish ideas gradually become more and more credible over time – and some even become a reality.

One policy idea that always seems to be floated but never happens is the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street. Someone – Simon Hughes in 2004, Ken Livingstone in 2008 – proposes the idea, but it somehow never really ignites public opinion and is soon forgotten when the election is over.

But this election, pedestrianising Oxford Street has finally gone mainstream, and no fewer than five candidates for the post of Mayor – including both frontrunners, Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith – are backing the idea. Even outgoing Mayor Boris Johnson has been converted, and in January, he ordered TfL to bring forward practical proposals.

Anyone who has visited Oxford Street will be aware of the case for pedestrianisation. In 2009 the London Assembly estimated that no fewer than 300 buses an hour passed down Oxford Street at peak times – a ‘red wall of metal’ in the inimitable words of Mayor Boris Johnson – and, according to a Westminster City Council study, some 167,000 passengers a day boarded or disembarked buses along this busy retail thoroughfare. Buses accounted for 42% of all traffic movements along Oxford Street. Traffic moved so slowly, in fact, that many passengers found it quicker to disembark at one end of the thoroughfare and walk to the other end to re-board a bus (probably an earlier one than they started on) and complete their journey. At the time, the BBC estimated that the average bus on Oxford Street contained just 10 passengers.

Congestion and delay are not the only negative impacts.  In January 2015, Kings College London academics reported that, astonishingly, the annual limit for nitrogen dioxide levels set by the European Union was exceeded in Oxford Street within just four days of the start of that year. Worse still, between 2006 and 2012 buses on Oxford Street hit no fewer than 192 pedestrians and 26 cyclists.

There have been efforts to reduce the number of buses since 2009 – with numbers down by around 20% at peak times – but traffic still moves at a snail’s pace. There are also regular ‘traffic free’ days on Oxford and Regent Street, especially in the run-up to Christmas each year. But full pedestrianisation of the 1.2 mile stretch of road is not without its problems. Even the Lib Dems’ latest proposal for Oxford Street envisions a zero-emission shuttle bus ferrying people from Marble Arch to Tottenham Court Road. Roads running parallel to Oxford Street – in Fitzrovia and Marylebone to the north, and Mayfair and Soho to the south – are narrower and already prone to congestion.

Nor is pedestrianisation likely to happen without opposition. Retailers, clean air campaigners and the cycling lobby may be in favour, but a number of groups are likely to fight vociferously. Residents in neighbouring streets are unlikely to be happy at the prospect of displaced buses running down their streets – and the denizens of Mayfair have both a history of vocal activism and the deep pockets needed to fund judicial reviews and other delaying tactics. After buses, taxis are the second most frequent users of Oxford Street (accounting for a whopping 37% of movements), and they are not a lobby that takes kindly to restrictions on their movements.

It may take some time – and a not inconsiderable amount of effort – but the political will finally seems to be in place to tackle one of London perennial traffic problems. Whoever wins on May 5th, it seems likely that Oxford Street will be a very different place by 2020.


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