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.

  • nick sloan

    The solution is to reintroduce trams (sorry light rail!!) that we used to have running on an otherwise pedestrianised Oxford street with electric buses (mmm didnt we call them trolleybuses !!!!) and hybrid or electric taxis serving the cross streets.

    This would also take congestion off the tube lines and crossrail and mean that all local destinations could be reached on modern electric transit that does not cause any local pollution. Manchester and Birmingham already have expanding lrt networks and London should be planning something similar. Tram to Birminham Curzon street or Manchester Piccadilly, high speed rail to Euston and connecting onward tram !!

    So basically back to the future. This is not a question of a utopian or fantasy suggestion but something that must actually be done in the interest of the economy, jobs and the environment. It is the ghost of transport future !!

  • Colin Jones

    Another possible solution would be to have a series of small (electric) buses running around the Oxford Street/Regent Street/Covent Garden area on a hop on/hop off basis and then route the through buses so they contacted this circuit and people would get off and use the shuttle to get where they want to go, and to ease pedestrian movement around the ‘west end’. Just charge Oyster cards 50p per journey, I’m sure there would be many takers i.e. John Lewis to Covent Garden market.

  • Tom Carr

    So much for congestion charging and road capacity confiscation:
    London suffers from to many buses stopping for too long while tourists entertain the drivers .There are too many flow restrictors particularly zebra crossings outside major tourist attractions. Now I know why a full bus is a rare sight.
    I frequenly use the number 11 from Liverpool Street to Beaufort street (Chelsea). It takes longer than it did in the ’80s when there were fewer traffic lights and conductors who let the drivers get on with their work.
    Nevertheless they serve us well as cramped, spasmodically mobile waiting rooms although Routemasters served us better.

  • Anoop

    Why not make Oxford Street for bicycles and disabled access only?

  • RapidAssistant

    Another scourge is bendy buses – I know this has been touched on before, but I was in the Holborn area on Saturday and watched as it took nearly the whole window of a green light for one to snake around into New Oxford Street, and by the time it cleared the lights they had turned back to red, leaving everyone stuck for another couple of minutes.

    The problem is that the culture in London is that driving is seen by many as a god-given right. Even when other major cities (Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester etc) pedestrianised their main shopping thoroughfares decades ago on a like it or lump it basis – London didn’t. Not even congestion charging and punitive parking charges seems to be able put the most determined of motorists off.

  • Craig

    I’ve taken to catching a 73 bendy bus from Kings Cross to Victoria during the morning rush hour as the Victoria Line normally sees me having to wait for three trains to actually get on board. During that time (between 8.30 and 9.30) there seem to be very few pedestrians as the shops are just opening/open at 10. I’m all for trolleybuses, less for the folly of hybrids, but I’d keep the road open to buses during the morning rush hour.

  • jimmy

    CORRECT TAXIS are allowed to ply for hire in most streets in london,
    its a good idea to stay on the pavement whenever possible,anyway i agree that a lot of the
    signalling both for pedestrians and drivers can be improved dramatically(TFL have the will
    to do so for the olympics)thats only for the chosen ones to.disrupt the whole of london for a few weeks what the hell.

  • jimmy

    Taxis are cheaper for four or five passengers than a hell of a lot of bus or train journeys,and quicker and straight to your door

  • Dan

    Yeah – but Jimmy they can still cause a load of congestion as about 3 full taxis moves 15 people max but takes up road space of 1 bus which moves circa 80 people (if one uses a like for like full vehicle comparison) of course most of the time buses are full and most of the time taxis seem to have one person in them only.

    Your price comparison only really works if taxi both full of adults and also is only a short hop distance – as taxis charge by distance and now most buses don’t (due to flat fares or zonal ticketing) – plus you fail to factor in that an all day bus ticket vs 2 or 3 journey taxis the price will not win as you say.