When you think of London, you don't necessarily think of boulevards. The wide, sweeping streets of Paris aren't part of London's planning language, and yet the West End is defined by its boulevards: Oxford Street to the north, Park Lane to the west, Charing Cross Road to the east and Pall Mall to the south. It is bisected vertically by Regent Street and horizontally by Piccadilly.
These are grand streets with the potential to enhance the area. They are key civic spaces, often with great architecture, yet they are swamped by motor vehicles — buses, vans, cars and HGVs. In the main, they are overcrowded, polluted and dangerous.
To see boulevards at their best, wander along Strøget in Copenhagen, Istiklal Avenue in Istanbul, Avda Constitución in Seville, and Rue Ste Cathérine in Bordeaux, where pedestrians safely stroll — and spend money — in car-free streets while trams and cyclists glide through shared spaces. It makes you wonder why London has put up with these awful environments for so long.
There have been numerous ingenious plans for overcoming the complex problem of making Oxford Street a better place and keeping the traffic moving. One, by the architect Bryan Avery, proposed a pedestrianisation scheme with a covered mall from Marble Arch to St Giles Circus; buses would run on its roof, unimpeded by pedestrians or cross streets. Bus stands would be located at convenient intervals and journey times would be considerably improved.
In 1983, a special joint meeting of the Highways and Planning Committees of Westminster City Council recommended that "these proposals merit further study by this council, the GLC, and other public bodies, as well as discussions with the public". But nothing happened.
Back in 1992 Christian Wolmar, transport journalist turned mayoral candidate, highlighted the dangers of Oxford Street: the 250 people hit by vehicles in that year, the six deaths and the unacceptable levels of pollution. The responses, then as now, reflected the difficulty of pleasing all the major stakeholders. The Oxford Street Association feared that pedestrianisation would deter customers. Taxi drivers suggested that they would be forced to take long and expensive detours. Westminster City Council thought pedestrianisation impractical because there was no alternative east-west route.
Ken Livingstone's plans of 2006 included a terminus at Marble Arch and a tram that people could hop on and off. The New West End Company welcomed the fact that such policies would turn Oxford Street into a "people place". John McAslan + Partners was commissioned to do a feasibility study for the introduction of trams. But again, nothing happened.
Ken Livingstone's plans of 2006 included a terminus at Marble Arch and a tram that people could hop on and off. But nothing happened.
The current Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has called for pedestrianisation by 2020. The 'p' word strikes fear into the hearts of many retailers, as well as the residents of streets who believe they will be affected by diverted vehicles.
But what does pedestrianisation mean? While a reduction in the overall volume of traffic must be a key part of future plans, the endgame might not be a totally bus- and taxi-free street from end to end, but one with enhanced public realm in specific locations. It might, for instance, involve the creation of new spaces between north-south trafficked roads; or a whole row of new public squares in the heart of the capital, with attendant opportunities for reimagining what a London boulevard can achieve.
The wider Oxford Street improvements might give some impetus to plans to reduce the dominance of traffic in Park Lane and upgrade connectivity to Hyde Park. In 1996, The Grosvenor Estate looked at the idea of linking their ownerships on the east side of Park Lane to Hyde Park by placing the eight lanes of traffic in tunnels and extending the park over the top. The idea was later reprised by Boris Johnson in his Way to Go transport strategy of 2010, but went no further.
More recently, the architect Liam Hennessy presented a simpler scheme at a New London Architecture conference, which proposed widening the four-lane northbound road to accommodate two-way traffic on the surface and turning the southbound carriageway into a wide pedestrianised boulevard. No trees would be removed and all the extra space required would come from the currently inaccessible central reservation.
The Grosvenor Estate supports the idea, but would only participate if it received the blessing of the Mayor, TfL and Westminster Council, according to its surveyor Nigel Hughes.
In the last 50 or so years, thinking about traffic in towns has shifted to a more satisfactory balance between strategies for movement and strategies for place, as set out in TfL's Street Types for London strategy. Accommodating traffic, absorbing the huge growth in pedestrian numbers that will be generated by Crossrail, reducing pollution, and improving placemaking in the West End are all complex undertakings with many stakeholders to be satisfied. Leadership is needed that reflects the appropriate balance of interests and sets out a clear framework for better coordinating policies on walking, cycling and public transport — as well as taxis and delivery vehicles.
If Sadiq Khan can push the stakeholders of Oxford Street and its environs to create a place that compares in quality with equivalents in foreign cities, he will have succeeded where many have failed — and he will leave a legacy to sit beside that of Nash and the Prince Regent.