Amongst the dismal offerings from several of those who would be mayor is the declared objective of pedestrianizing Oxford Street. Despite the rhetoric, both candidates are cautious that this is achievable and Khan wants to start by having car-free days, according to his manifesto. Oxford Street has actually been car-free during business hours since 1972 and the congestion there now is almost entirely the buses and taxis fighting to get along a road whose carriageways (however wide they may seem) have already been much-reduced.
Those who spend their lives criticizing, rather than doing, tell us the ‘problem’ is too many buses – great long lines of static empty buses – and opine that if one just got rid of them all would be well. The buses (reasonably necessary to get people to and from London’s busiest shopping street) are not of course the problem, but they are a symptom of the underlying problem which I shall turn to shortly. The ‘problem’ is a hopelessly and inappropriately shared space, not fit for purpose, that creates static traffic. Worse still, it is expensive static public transport, which is said to contribute significantly to the noxious emissions created (predominantly) by central London traffic.
Oxford Street is a section of old Roman road, built up, and therefore hemmed in, in the eighteenth century and successively modernized as ever-more office development was required in central London, the council attempting to shift the building line back where possible. Today the buildings flank a road largely 80ft wide between frontages, but still with some at the old 70ft distance. Trying to achieve a balance between the traffic and pedestrian parts is bad enough, but now consider the hapless way the street has been allowed to develop. Only the very few of the largest buildings extend backwards through an entire block, so virtually all deliveries and collections have to be made from Oxford Street itself. Of course, this is largely done in the early morning and evening, but not always, and just one delivery vehicle can cause havoc. We then have taxis constantly stopping to pick up and set down.We always have some kind of road works, somewhere. We have the odd parked police car dealing with a shoplifter, an ambulance perhaps, or a pedolo doing something annoying at 1mph, and so on. In any planned city the street would have been designed as a shopping boulevard with nice wide pavements and there would be rear access for delivery vehicles and so on. Naturally we quite like London the way it has evolved, which is one of the things that makes it interesting, but there is a price to pay.
We can have the debate about whether cars should be allowed in central London at all, but I will confine myself to commenting about public transport. The Underground is an excellent way of getting to, from and across central London laterally, but it is less effective at carrying people comparatively short distances because of the time penalty in both diverting to where the stations are and in getting to and from the platforms and waiting for the train. For journeys of under a couple of miles it is likely to be more convenient to get a bus since (1) there are more change-free journey opportunities, (2) there are many more stops than stations, so getting to and from a stop will be quicker and easier, and (3) it is at street level so the time wasted plodding to and from platforms is eliminated. Moreover, bus travel is often pleasanter and it must surely be intrinsically wrong (and expensive) to force people into the unnatural world of the deep underground unless there is a compelling reason to do so. Central London average traffic speed is not fast, about 9mph, and whilst the actual amount of traffic has reduced, other measures (longer pedestrian phases at traffic lights, cycling provision etc) has apparently absorbed the slack that would otherwise have been created. Nevertheless, for comparatively short journeys the bus is king where walking has been ruled out as an option.
Bus timings along Oxford Street are quite interesting. On a 13 bus, a run from Orchard Street to Piccadilly Circus (about a mile) is an 8-minute run at 06:00 and an 18-minute run at 18:00, an average speed of just over 3mph and slower than walking. The extra 10 minutes in the peak is the congestion factor. On a 73 at 06:00, 9 minutes is scheduled from Tottenham Court Road to Marble Arch (1.3 miles), whilst at 18:30 some 22 minutes is allowed, an average speed of exactly 3mph and a congestion penalty of 13 minutes. You can see immediately that for most journeys under a mile no able-bodied person near Oxford Street is actually better off using a bus, even if one is at the stop and your destination is near another stop. This is not helped by the very poor positioning of (and long gaps between) stops along Oxford Street. This conjecture entirely echoes my own experience of watching passenger behaviour, where people get off and walk in exasperation. Moreover, the scheduled timings are often, in my opinion, exceeded in practice. The buses in Oxford Street are virtually unusable for very local journeys.
I am not suggesting the buses are not without use, of course. Some buses actually turn at Oxford Circus, providing a useful central London terminal point for those travelling some distance, especially along routes not necessarily duplicating the Underground. Some routes do duplicate the Underground, but actually there are people who want to spend their life at surface level and for all kinds of reasons can’t or choose not to go down into the bowels of the earth, especially when it is busy. Most of the other buses pass along Oxford Street because they provide a useful cross-London journey opportunity, for example Portman Square to Aldwych, very awkward by Underground but rather too long to expect people to walk.
In a very real sense, the problem here is London itself. If public service vehicles must pass across London from east to west, there are pretty much only three routes. You have Euston Road, Oxford Street and Piccadilly-Strand. All three routes are heavily congested and the Euston Road route doesn’t really serve very much and is a bit indirect. I suggest the Piccadilly route could hardly take half the extra buses if they were diverted from Oxford Street, and certainly not all of them, and nor is Shaftesbury Avenue credibly able to take more buses. Moreover it would leave a vast bus-free gap across the centre in the very area people want to go to.
To pedestrianize Oxford Street would seem to present some problems then, since it suggests that the buses, on very long-established routes, must either be diverted some other way or they must cease. As already noted, suitable alternatives are poor and perhaps infeasible substitutes.* It is true that there is one road, Wigmore Street, that once used to carry a bus service, and which might have a part to play in all this. However it is away from the traffic objectives and would create some challenges in getting the buses into and out of it. Moreover it is doubtful if it could carry the present numbers and would be an awkward diversion, further slowing down already desperately slow speeds, at least if it had to carry the taxi load too. In fact, diverting the whole of present Oxford Street traffic is almost certainly impossible, particularly since the affluent residents of that road are set against even one bus route going along the road. Even if feasible, it only deals with half the problem since narrower Mortimer Street would be very difficult to include in any solution towards relieving the eastern end of Oxford Street. Perhaps Wigmore Street might be a better option for a safe cycle-way, reducing cycles along Oxford Street and the conflicts with pedestrians spilling off the pavements. Or somewhere for the taxis to enjoy.
London Buses is well aware of the issues and has been for decades, during which time no magic solution has presented itself. In recent years it has pandered to the clamour for a reduction in buses and either reduced frequencies or chopped routes short. Thus the westbound 8, for example, unhelpfully stops at Tottenham Court Road instead of going along Oxford Street. I am a frequent bus user and am beginning to find it irksome when travelling from the Bloomsbury or Clerkenwell area, and wanting the west end of Oxford Street, to have to change now. The arrangements for changing buses to complete an onward journey are appalling at Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Circus and, for that matter, at Marble Arch. Split stops, crowded pavements and few if any shelters. You just wait in the wind and rain and crowds. Thank you very much: this is not public transport as I would wish to see it! I don’t suppose either mayoral candidate has ever had to do this.
The more far-fetched solutions have already been examined, though the armchair experts keep bringing it up. Why not have a nice environmentally friendly tram along [otherwise pedestrianized] Oxford Street? Remember the recent Edinburgh tram challenge with endless excavation? Oxford Street is a very old road with a vast number of services and sewers just under the surface, and four Underground station ticket halls with ceilings only just under the road. Not impossible but very, very expensive, disruptive and risky. Furthermore, since the value in the Oxford Street route is primarily not for local bus traffic, we are now asking the predominant through passengers to change at least once, and perhaps twice. Where, exactly? People hate changing anyway. Providing a depot would be fun. Trams may be an answer to some problems, but not this one.
Is pedestrianization feasible? Between Tottenham Court Road and Marble Arch there are 13 north-south road crossings punctuating the main road at regular and frequent intervals. These are mainly quite narrow roads converted to one-way many years ago and an important part of the local area. One or two might be closed off perhaps, but without banning cars altogether it is hard to see how they could all be closed off as there are few alternatives. One could therefore not have a wholly pedestrianized street because of all these roads that cross. What happens to the residual delivery vehicles, and so on?
I wonder, with ever-tighter control of noxious emissions from buses and taxis and the fact that cars are already banned, whether so far as poisoning the air is concerned the emissions from public transport along Oxford Street will in due course fix itself, and whether evicting buses and taxis is something of an over-reaction. Furthermore, if we want to reduce congestion and make the buses more useful, then it seems to me there might be a case for banning all the vehicles except buses, which would thus be speeded up and more useful (particularly if there was a more favourable arrangement of traffic light phasing, at present it is at least open to debate). I do recall when Oxford Street had more bus routes than now and they moved fairly rapidly. It can be done, I think, if one wanted to.
Having said all that, if we really want pedestrianized shopping areas in central London then I wonder whether Oxford Street should be a candidate. It is obviously true that there are some high-end and attractive shops in Oxford Street (some of them useful). Many shops, though, are tired and tatty places in old Edwardian or Victorian buildings used mainly for offices. This would include the tourist ‘memorabilia’ type shops, and the chains you can find anywhere and so-on. Much of it is actually not very nice. One would be better off pedestrianizing Bond Street and perhaps one or two others nearby. If Oxford Street is to be more pedestrian-friendly then it needs a great deal of work from the bulldozer and the builder, a greater practical width and effective rear access for collections and delivery. I am certainly not the only one to think this, and I am sure many readers will be aware of decades-old plans to install an uninterrupted pedestrianized deck along Oxford Street, moving the entrances to all the shops to first floor level and leaving the ground floor route to delivery vehicles, buses and, I suppose, taxis. Not cheap, but a better option perhaps than throwing the public transport somewhere else. Another plan elevated a bus and taxi-only roadway leaving the ground for pedestrians, but this required more massive engineering and still took the transport away from where it was wanted.
Whatever the answer I don’t think you need to pedestrianize Oxford Street and the practicalities are also very considerable, particularly if you want to improve public transport and speed it up (which means making access easier and not more difficult). It is said that Crossrail provides an opportunity to revisit the challenge. Really? There will be Crossrail stations at Tottenham Court Road and Bond Street and it will be a most unsuitable means of travelling just between the two (in any case already served by more accessible Central Line). So, we must ignore the short-distance user. The existing buses, in the main, do not follow the Crossrail alignment and, in particular, the Bayswater Road and Edgware Road and Baker Street routes that then go down Regent Street are quite unaffected by Crossrail. This is, I suspect, a bus-red herring. But anyway, do the sums and the forecasts for pedestrianization, but it doesn’t get over the main problems. London may or may not need a classier, shopping-friendly pedestrianized space, but, if it does, fiddling with Oxford Street isn’t it.
By the way, lest anyone runs away with the idea that the only problem street is Oxford Street, the image below is Strand which, too, is often full of near standing traffic and slower-than-walking buses. You would find something similar in Piccadilly at certain times of the day, too.
A much more worthwhile objective is how to get London’s very expensive to buy and operate buses to run at more than 3mph. If any prospective mayor will promise me that, he (or she) will get my vote.
- I’m not going into it here, but I spent some time considering the alternative ‘unfeasible’, or the get-out ‘not feasible’.