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The World's 'Most Polluted Street' Will Go Pedestrian-Only

London’s Oxford Street will ban cars, buses and taxis starting in 2020.

Shoppers reflected in a store window on London's Oxford Street. (Luke MacGregor/Reuters)

The street that some scientists have called “the most polluted in the world” is set to go car-free. According to an announcement Thursday from London’s Deputy Mayor for Transport, London’s Oxford Street will be entirely free of vehicles by 2020. That doesn’t just mean no cars—these are already banned during peak hours and on weekends—it means no buses and no taxis as well, which will rerouted in two staggered phases.

The plan responds to a desperate need. An extremely busy shopping destination, Oxford Street’s air pollution is so bad that it typically reaches beyond-safe levels for the entire year within the first week of January. But while cutting pollution here is sorely needed, it’s also a difficult enterprise. Handled badly, the pedestrianization plan for Oxford Street could risk blocking up the whole of Central London.

Here’s why. London, you see, is no New York. Instead of an even grid system, London’s center has a hotchpotch of smaller streets that often meander and sometime stop abruptly in alleys or dead ends. There is a network of broader avenue-style streets threaded through all this, many knocked-through since the late 19th century to make the city more navigable. But take any one of these out of action for through traffic and it is suddenly very difficult to find an alternative route.

Oxford Street is one of these. Even without cars it is one of the main axes for east-west buses crossing inner London, with 168 buses passing through an hour during peak periods. That in itself is a big part of the problem: stalled buses belching emissions onto a street lined with high-sided buildings. So where can all those buses go?

The city hasn’t as yet given an answer, merely saying they will be rerouted. This could mean creating new lines that run along narrow Mortimer Street to the north or to Marylebone Road, which is pretty far away. Another possible solution discussed in the past is to clean up Oxford Street by replacing buses with a tram. This would be cleaner, but even disregarding the expense, a tram would still mean that bus passengers aiming to get across town would need to alight at either end of the street to board it, creating bottlenecks.

Thankfully for London, there is a new bit of transit infrastructure in the pipeline that could help ease the situation. London sees the launch of Crossrail—a.k.a. the Elizabeth Line—in 2018. A heavy rail project that will ultimately bring people in from London’s eastern and western exurbs without making them transfer onto the subway network, Crossrail will have two stops on Oxford Street. Along with the already existing Tube line running the same stretch (with four stops), it’s launch could mean fewer people need to get buses in the first place.

There’s still no easy fix available here. Indeed, the case of Oxford Street is a good object lesson in the complexity of creating cleaner, healthier air alongside effective transit in a densely built metropolis. When attacked piecemeal, pollution and congestion can act like the furry critter in a game of Whac-A-Mole. The moment they are hammered in one location, they can impudently pop up elsewhere. Pedestrianizing London’s main shopping street may in the short term cause a more diffused (though possibly milder) network of problems in the streets around it. Still, if that shift of emphasis creates pressure for yet more joined-up solutions to London’s pollution (and lets its shoppers breathe more easily) it will surely be a good thing.

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