Oxford Street needs a radical rethink, not tinkering

Walking in a Soho street on a January Saturday night with my partner and a couple of friends, I was stopped by a policeman: ‘Please walk on the pavement’ he barked at me. I was in no mood to obey. Lisle Street, which runs parallel to Chinatown’s main drag, Gerrard Street, has tiny pavements and little traffic. There were hundreds of pedestrians and virtually no cars. In any case, I had got used to walking in streets as they were safer, because they were gritted, than the pavements in much of London during the freeze.

 Moreover, Special Constable Pyle had touched a raw nerve. There are no rules governing who uses streets. People are allowed to walk on them providing they are not obstructing the highway. I wasn’t since there was no traffic.

 Pyle, who was all of 19 and with his ridiculous glasses bore such an uncanny ressemblance to Austin Powers that I could not help feeling he might be part of a reality TV show, ordered me onto the pavement where he took all of five minutes to fill out a stop form to the embarrassment of his fellow PCs. Pyle handed me a copy of the laboriously completed form together with a leaflet asking me to help combat terrorism. Not the best way to do it.

  The Pyle world view is clearly that cars must have priority and pedestrians are a nuisance who must be got out of the way. This is a very fundamental aspect of the attitude of highway engineers and town planners which is only now beginning to change and even then only very patchily and incoherently.

 Examples of this attitude abound. On the crossing on the A1 Holloway Road near my house, it takes up to a minute – it seems longer – for the signal to change to let through cyclists and pedestrians. Similarly, in Bristol, according to John Grimshaw, the founder of Sustrans and now a freelance engineer, such lights always take 40 secs to change ‘because they are worried that there will be rear end shunts if they change too quickly and they don’t want the lights to stop if there is just one cycle or pedestrian’.

 Yet in Woking, where I visited recently to see what progress the local cycle team was making, they have installed Toucan crossings for bikes and pedestrians which stop the traffic instantly. They have also put in crossings which are not staggered and consequently without a pedestrian pen in the middle . That is a design that is opposed by many highway engineers because they fear it will disrupt traffic – but there is no doubt that it is better for pedestrians. Those pens have proliferated in London, often on busy crossings putting people at risk as they have to push past people to get away from the traffic.

 The most obvious example of the wrong priorities has to be Oxford Street. A report just produced by the London Assembly, Streets Ahead, highlights the nightmare quality of the environment and the dangers posed to pedestrians. There are a staggering 300 buses – all double decker or bendy – per hour in peak hours. The street has an accident rate 35 times higher than the London average and pollution levels nearly five times above EU limits. Yet, unaccountably, taxis are still allowed to ply their trade in the street – because TfL has been too scared to boot them out.

 The report’s conclusions are rather mealy-mouthed. It says solutions are not easy and it suggests possibly a part pedestrianisation. However, the report rightly found that there has been no examination of a long term strategy for Oxford Street and calls for the Mayor to be involved in such a process, but it does not sufficiently consider the only realistic solution, total pedestrianisation.

 Peter Hendy, the Transport Commissioner, and his colleagues at TfL always respond from a similar hymn sheet, arguing that caution is necessary and that closing the street would disrupt the whole of London’s bus system and overcrowd the Tubes. Steve Norris, the chair of TfL’s surface transport panel, warns of ‘unforeseen circumstances’ from large changes to the transport system. It’s all negative nonsense. Kick out the taxis tomorrow, and remove the buses. Allow people to walk in the street since there are flows of 29,000  per hour.  Already Oxford Street is closed for one day per year, and London copes, so why not make it permanent?

 The notion that all this is impossible and we need to wait for Crossrail is just defeatist. Oxford Street has five Tube lines serving it already, and of course there might be extra congestion on them. Yes, rerouting buses is complex but doable. TfL planners need to treat the issue as if bombers had blown up Oxford Circus and blocked the whole area. Then, just as Network Rail built a new station in Workington in under a week, rather than the five years it normally takes,  solutions would be found.

 The real issue is that pedestrianisation might make people walk a bit further but that is what happens on every equivalent shopping area in European towns. By all means allow a few mini buses, preferably electric, to circulate in the otherwise closed streets as they do in Vienna – which should not be allowed to go faster than walking pace – put in lots of taxi ranks on the side streets and reroute buses. But take radical action or the street will die, especially given that two more huge shopping areas are being built in London at Stratford and Kings Cross to add to the recently opened Westfield.

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