Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
London’s plans for Oxford Street show that even the busiest roads can ban vehicles—but there's one major misstep.
Finally, it’s happening. After years of discussion, London’s Oxford Street is being pedestrianized. A key London axis known for its huge popularity as a place to shop—and its equally huge pollution problem—Oxford Street has endured for years as a notorious fume trap because it’s such a vital corridor for buses. As you might imagine, tidying up has been a logistical headache. But if it works here, the plan could become a template for any city that wants to turn a busy thoroughfare into car-free zone.
By the end of next year, 800 meters (about half a mile) of the street will be barred to vehicles. The remaining sections are set to be pedestrianized in two stages in the years following. This street is so busy, and so central, that many people doubt the change is even possible—but the long-building city-led push for change, powered in part by shaming pollution figures that step far beyond EU-prescribed guidelines, is finally creating action. To understand how pedestrianization can happen here, it’s well worth looking at how London is managing the Oxford Street challenge.
Oxford Street’s pedestrianization is so tricky because the city surrounding it was laid out long before anyone dreamed up the internal combustion engine. The street is (at least in a sense) almost two millennia old, following the path of the Via Trinobantina, an old Roman road pushing out to London’s west. While it is fairly broad by London standards, it sits among streets that are narrow and maze-like, meaning that for a long time, buses and delivery vehicles trying to cross town had almost no viable alternative route.
What makes Oxford Street distinctive, however, is that private cars haven’t been a source of its congestion for decades. They’ve been banned from accessing the street during peak hours since as far back as the early 1980s, excluded at that time more to reduce gridlock than pollution. Such a crush of buses and taxis has remained however, that pollution and congestion levels remain critically high. Without parallel alternatives, 200 buses still funnel through the street every hour at peak times, often at a crawl, filling the air with so many fumes that the street typically exceeds its safe emission levels for an entire 12 months within the first two weeks of every year.
So how can London close Oxford Street without choking off the city around it? And what happens to people who cross the area in transit to somewhere else? The solutions to this knot of issues are as follows.
Make rail transit a viable alternative
The tube line that runs underneath the street (the Central Line) is hugely congested. At the end of 2018, this stretch of subway will finally get major relief in the form of Crossrail, a huge underground east-west heavy rail project that should take most commuter traffic and provide two major new stations on Oxford Street. With Crossrail taking more of the strain, the Underground could (at least initially) find itself with more breathing space, attracting more of the passengers that currently use buses. This should take a lot of pressure off street-level transit.
Rethink the bus network
To an extent, bus passengers will be forced to use trains because a lot of bus routes are going to be cut short. Transport for London is effectively giving up on the nine bus routes that currently travel along Oxford Street. Only two will be re-routed to the nearest parallel street north, while two more will be routed away from the area entirely. The five remaining lines, all coming in from the west, will soon terminate at the street’s western end, where there should be enough space to accommodate bus turnaround without clogging the roads. Taxis will also be banned, with new ranks set up on adjacent streets.
Even with new rail links along the street, barring buses might seem harsh, but the current situation where vehicles crawl at a snail’s pace along the road is untenable, and could be even worse if the routes were forced to the narrower nearest parallel street to the north.
Allow some vehicle crossings—and improve the wider area
While east-west road traffic will be closed, it’s probably unrealistic to turn Oxford Street into a 1.8-mile-long barrier blocking all car traffic. For this reason, some north-south cross streets will remain open. That should keep smaller streets to the south accessible, even if getting there in a delivery van might be more difficult.
Keeping these surrounding streets open will only work, however, if they’re treated as more than just overspill for displaced traffic. Many of the smaller streets are also shopping areas, and they contain the places to eat and drink that are few and far between on the main street, which is dominated by big retail stores. The idea is to make this area more user-friendly with widened sidewalks and far more road crossings. Ultimately, Oxford Street can unbuckle its belt a few notches and let customers spread out a little into the broader vicinity.
Make the area more attractive
Ensuring any pedestrian precinct is busy and pleasant to hang out in is essential. Nothing riles drivers more than seeing a road cleared of vehicles only to be left empty as traffic clogs in its surroundings. To achieve this on Oxford Street, the plan is to level the street entirely, so that the curbs between road and sidewalk disappear. The road can then be filled in by some attractive graphic paving that will serve to advertise pedestrian ownership of the former roadway, encouraging shoppers to spread out from currently congested sidewalks that, during busy periods, are frankly hellish.
…And a major missed opportunity
So far the mixing of pedestrianization with a major rethink of how traffic circulates in the area sounds very positive. There’s still a blind spot. Current plans also call for banning cycling, with only very vague promises about improving bike infrastructure in the surrounding streets. In their consultancy documents, TfL justifies this by noting that, “Surveys show that many cyclists tend to avoid Oxford Street, and instead use alternative routes.”
This is like suggesting that bathers avoid a specific sewage-infected beach because no one really likes swimming. Oxford Street’s unpopularity with cyclists reflects the fact that it’s not a cycling-friendly environment. It doesn’t mean no one would cycle there under better conditions. Plans for Oxford Street may do much to clear its air and show other cities exactly what is possible. When it comes to barring bikes, however, London is missing a trick.