We look at some of the issues around the pedestrianisation plans, which did not receive a universal welcome.
When London’s new deputy mayor Val Shawcross announced in July that plans for the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street would be brought forward with the aim of full implementation by 2020, there was some consternation amongst interested parties.
Even though it had been a manifesto pledge by Sadiq Khan during the mayoral election, there had been some expectation that the project would await the opening of Crossrail and an assessment of the implications of the new railway on travel patterns in the area.
Indeed, there was a surprising consensus of view between Westminster City Council, Transport for London as well as local businesses and local residents. All have emphasised that the aim of any policy for the street should be traffic reduction in the whole area, rather than pedestrianisation of a single thoroughfare for its own sake – with its inevitable knock-on consequences for the surrounding streets.
We tend to think of the West End as being full of shops and offices, but in fact there are areas which still have significant residential populations, both in Soho and particularly in the Fitzrovia area north of Oxford Street, home to some 4,000 residents – including substantial amounts of social housing.
A closure of the eastern end of Oxford Street (between Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Circus), which Ms Shawcross envisages being the first stage, could be expected to have a very significant impact on this area.
Following the partial closure of Oxford Street to other traffic in 1972, Wigmore Street, Mortimer Street and Goodge Street became the major artery for displaced eastbound traffic and are already badly congested during much of the day. The westbound route runs along Howland Street and New Cavendish Street. This is further away from Oxford Street (around 600 metres), and Howland Street in particular is very narrow in places. Inevitably, these streets would be the main route for bus services moved away from the main shopping artery – as indeed has been the case during several extended eastbound diversions during the construction of Crossrail. Finding stop locations for the buses would be a major challenge, and run the risk of causing further delays.
West of Oxford Circus, there are two options for diverted traffic, though both are already heavily congested. As already discussed, to the north lies New Cavendish Street (used by westbound traffic) or Wigmore Street (eastbound). On the south side, a route is available via Hanover Square, Brook Street and Grosvenor Square (eastbound) and Maddox Street, Grosvenor Street and Grosvenor Square (westbound). However, shoppers would face a 300-400 metre walk from the shops to their bus stops if these roads were used.
Some statistics might help to give the whole issue some context:
• Oxford Street is currently used by around 270 buses an hour, the equivalent of around 4,860 movements a day
• The buses carry 43,000 through passengers a day, whilst there are around 175,000 daily boarders and alighters
• The through passenger figure equates to around 13 million a year
• Boarders and alighters on Oxford Street equate to 53 million annually
• Taxi movements account for a further 15,000 daily passenger movements (picking up and setting down) – an annual figure of 4.6 million
• The street is visited by approximately 500,000 people a day (152 million a year).
In other words, around one third of Oxford Street visitors arrive and depart by bus or taxi.
Drivers of change
The two main drivers of change are twofold:
- The air quality issue. Research shows that concentrations of Nitrous Oxide can be up to 11 times the EU limit at peak times. A study in 2014 undertaken by King’s College London suggested that Oxford Street was one of the most heavily polluted streets in Europe. With 87% of the vehicular traffic being diesel-powered buses and taxis, many of which are in stopping and starting all day, this is hardly surprising, but it is a major concern.
- Concerns about the street’s competitive position. How much is this being affected by recent shopping developments such as the Westfield malls at White City and Stratford? But would the advantages of pedestrianisation be offset by reducing its accessibility? The air quality issue is important here too, but there is also the general air of congestion and chaos provoked by lines of slow-moving or even stationary traffic for long parts of the day.
Will Crossrail help?
There is a view that demand for bus services will fall following the opening of Crossrail in 2018, with plans reportedly being drawn up to reduce the network accordingly. However, there must be some doubt as to whether the introduction of what is primarily a new regional rail route will affect the much more local journeys made by bus to any great extent. For instance:
- the bus journey opportunities to and from Oxford Street that could switch to Crossrail are already served by either the Central or the Bakerloo lines on the existing London Underground system.
- Crossrail will provide limited access, with just the two stops on Oxford Street (Tottenham Court Road and Bond Street) compared with the existing four on the Central Line and the more frequent bus stops
- the type of generalised cost modelling used for such predictions are not necessarily good at picking up consumer preferences for open air, accessibility or dislike of walking.
How Buses use Oxford Street
Routes are can be categorised in three ways:
• Those which traverse the entire length of the street from Marble Arch to Tottenham Court Road – 10, 73, 98, 390.
• Routes to and from the east which terminate at Oxford Circus – 25 and 55.
• Routes to and from the west which either terminate at Oxford Circus (7, 137, 189) or turn there and then serve Regent Street (6, 13, 23, 94, 139, 159).
In addition, there are north-south routes running along Regent Street which cross Oxford Circus in order to terminate there or travel further north (3, 12 terminating; C2, 88, 453 through). The 3 is currently turning short in Regent Street, but may return to Oxford Circus when Crossrail works in Hanover Square are completed.
TfL and its contractors have done several things to address these issues. In recent years, five routes have been cut back to reduce bus flows, including the 7, 8 and 176 at the eastern end, and the 15 and 113 at the western. At the same time, 11 of the 20 routes involved are now operated by hybrid New Routemaster buses, which have much lower emissions. The rest are run by diesel-powered or hybrid-driven vehicles fitted with Euro 5 or Euro 6 engines. These have much lower emissions than earlier models. Earlier in 2016, the first all-electric double decker buses were introduced in London, and started work on the 98 route along Oxford Street. Clearly, further progress can and will be made, especially with new requirements for taxis coming in as part of the Ultra Low Emissions Zone in 2020.
At the eastern end, a large number of further bus and coach routes, including Green Line and National Express vehicles, use Oxford Street between Baker Street and Marble Arch. Complete pedestrianisation would also have to find a solution for them.
The Local Reactions
Local reactions to the scheme have been reported in the Autumn edition of the local residents’ paper, Fitzrovia News. The New West End Company – the body that represents local traders – was cautious. Spokesperson Jace Tyrell told the paper that they looked forward to seeing in discussing the proposals. “But we feel very strongly that any form of vehicle-free zones must lead to a genuine reduction of traffic rather than large scale re-routing down smaller residential or commercial streets.” He also called for a full economic assessment to measure the impact on businesses as well as “the shoppers and workers that travel to the West End every day via public transport.”
Wendy Shillam of the Fitzrovia West Neighbourhood Forum described the effects of a permanent diversion of taxis and bus routes along neighbouring streets as “devastating”. In an open letter to Val Shawcross, she demanded an assurance that “no scheme will be approved which diverts public transport and taxis through streets in our area.”
As with many issues of traffic management and the environment, the Oxford Street issue is a very difficult one. Policymakers have to balance a whole variety of issues:
- the need to improve air quality.
- the desire maintain Oxford Street’s competitiveness against other locations and other cities.
- the effect of any measures on the interests of several thousand residents and small businesses in the surrounding streets.
- the effects on the reliability of the wider bus network. The 20 routes affected for a vital part of central London’s bus network, and further disruption through increased congestion could be disastrous.
Given the passenger numbers involved, it seems fairly unlikely that further significant reductions could be made in bus flows along Oxford Street. Thus, pedestrianisation would result in the routes being switched to the alternative routes which already exist, but are much less suitable for buses. This would:
- reduce accessibility
- cause infrastructure problems (for example over the siting of bus stops, shelters and waiting areas)
- risk further congestion for all traffic, which would then spread well beyond the immediate area of Oxford Street. Further congestion would also, of course, worsen air quality in the surrounding area.
It’s a finely balanced decision, with huge potential consequences for millions of Londoners and visitors to the city. Pedestrianisation is not, or should not be, a done deal. Putting something in a manifesto because it sounds like a good, potentially popular idea is one thing. Sound, evidence-driven policy-making is quite another.