Since Sadiq Khan announced plans for Oxford Street to be pedestrianised by 2020, it’s all gone a bit quiet. The plan ambitiously aims to ban all traffic along the 1.2-mile stretch from Tottenham Court Road to Marble Arch, but exactly how it will do this remains up in the (notoriously toxic) air.
Many questions still need to be answered. How would TfL reconfigure its bus routes down the smaller surrounding roads? How would delivery vehicles be able to access the stores?
From a purely aesthetic point of view, though, has anyone thought about what it might mean for Oxford Circus’s iconic diagonal crossing?
Based on previous crossings in Tokyo, the £5 million design sits on the busy intersection with Regent Street. Since opening in 2009 has become one of the road's most famous features. It was unveiled by then Mayor of London Boris Johnson, who called it "a triumph for British engineering, Japanese innovation and good old fashioned common sense". Yet wouldn’t getting rid of Oxford Street’s traffic undermine a fair chunk of its actual purpose?
A spokesman for the current Mayor of London said specific details for pedestrianisation would be revealed “in due course” and was unable to confirm any design plans, but added that “London deserves an iconic pedestrianised shopping street”.
Christian Wolmar, a leading transport journalist whose campaign against Sadiq Khan to be Labour’s mayoral candidate focused heavily on Oxford Street’s pollution, is more forthcoming:
“It’s fine, we could keep [the crossing], especially since no one yet is suggesting pedestrianising Regent Street,” he said, continuing:
It has helped, the diagonal crossing, but it’s also exposed the fact that Oxford Circus is at the limit of what it can take in terms of people without opening up the space from cars. Yes there are issues about how many buses can go down the parallel streets, but these issues are resolvable in the face of the fact that this is the most polluted street in Britain or even Europe.
The need to tackle pollution in Oxford Street is as urgent as it’s ever been. As far back as 1963, Sir Colin Buchanan, the town planner for the Ministry of Transport, called it “a travesty of conditions as they ought to be in a capital city”, and despite the fact that private cars have been essentially banned from the road since 1972, it still recorded the world’s highest concentration of nitrogen oxide pollution two years ago.
Nonetheless, there are serious doubts about the feasibility of full pedestrianisation, and it seems the new mayor has a battle on his hands if he wants to make it a reality. TfL has previously expressed concern about pedestrianisation causing a loss in trade for the likes of Westfield and Brent Cross shopping centres, while the New West End Company – which represents businesses on Oxford Street, Regent Street and Bond Street – believes the focus should be on successfully lessening pollution, rather than necessarily a blanket traffic ban.
Jane Tyrrell, chairman of the company, said: “We feel very strongly that any form of vehicle-free zones must lead to a genuine reduction of traffic, rather than large scale re-routing down smaller residential or commercial streets.
“In addition, it must be accompanied by full economic assessments to measure the impact on businesses and the shoppers and workers that travel to the West End every day via public transport.”
The West End Partnership, a wider coalition of local business and government groups, is currently “conducting significant work” discussing the plans and will report back in the autumn, but if previous grand schemes for Oxford Street are anything to go by, Mr Khan’s announcement may have been premature.
In the meantime, all this should at least justify the continued existence of the diagonal crossing. With Regent Street continuing as normal and the debate surrounding full pedestrianisation far from clear-cut, the popular junction will surely remain a necessity in some form. Plus, having cost millions to build less than a decade ago, it would hardly be a testament to austerity Britain to tear it back down again, would it?