Opinion

Coming To Oxford Street: Pedestrianisation Without Pedestrianisation?

Laura Reynolds
By Laura Reynolds Last edited 13 months ago
Coming To Oxford Street: Pedestrianisation Without Pedestrianisation?

Several proposals for the regeneration of the Oxford Street District have been revealed, and they make for interesting — if rather confusing — reading.

The plans, written by Westminster Council, cover 94 projects across 85 different streets in nine zones. They come after the proposed pedestrianisation of the busy shopping street was cancelled earlier this year. Yet 'pedestrianisation' is still mooted in these new plans. Along with access for buses, commercial vehicles, cyclists and green spaces. As we say, it's all a bit confusing.

There's an air of apology about these plans

Westminster Council has outlined its top 10 proposals in the strategy, which, while all interesting, don't seem to work in conjunction with one another. There's also an air of apology about it all — perhaps because it was the council that put the kibosh on plans for the outright pedestrianisation of Oxford Street. If you ask us, the plans across as an attempt to save face in the public eye, positively yelling "We still care about pedestrians! Look at our amazing new plans! We're trying really hard, honest!"

For example, there's mention of a "new public piazza style space at Oxford Circus", suggesting that the famous junction may become pedestrianised. At the same time, a Cabinet Report produced in advance of next week's meeting states that "Traffic will remain on Oxford Street as it is a key transport corridor".

So no, that intersection won't be pedestrianised, but we're squeezing a public piazza in there somewhere too.

Pedestrianisation without pedestrianisation

The chance of complete pedestrianisation may be all but over, but 'pedestrianisation' is still a buzzword. The top proposal reads:

Prioritise pedestrians by massively increasing walking space throughout the whole district whilst retaining two-way vehicle movement along the length of Oxford Street.  

A quick mental calculation suggests that there isn't the room to give more space over to pedestrians without subtracting from the vehicle space — and narrowing the carriageways by any significant amount would rule out the possibility of two-way traffic, as buses wouldn't have the space to pass each other. So how's that going to be done? Ah yes:

The priority will be for pedestrian space with the aim to widen all footways and narrow the carriageway by removing bus laybys

So buses will be stopping in the road to let passengers on and off, rather than pulling into the existing laybys. Wouldn't fancy being stuck behind a bus that's stop-starting all the way down Oxford Street — in fact, the removal of the laybys will surely bring the entire street and its subsidiary roads to a near-permanent standstill (which, now we think about it, helps with one of the other proposals; introducing a 20mph limit across the district).

How much new pedestrian space will the district have? Apparently an astonishing TWO TRAFALGAR SQUARES' worth. Not all of this space comes from poky laybys, we presume some backstreets will be widened, or — dare we say it — pedestrianised. Still this is an ambitious claim from a council that's desperate not to tweak with traffic flows.

What about cyclists?

So we want more space for pedestrians, while keeping traffic flowing — but what about cyclists? Point 8 of the strategy reads:

Encourage cycling by retaining access for cyclists to Oxford Street and develop proposals for new cycling routes across the district with two new east–west cycle routes, to the north and south of Oxford Street as well as providing a number of key north-south connections across the district and more cycle parking.

So while cyclists will still be able to cycle on Oxford Street, they'll be encouraged to use other nearby routes instead. Again, it's not exactly screaming "Come to Oxford Street on your bike!".

What's a pop-up park?

With the battle for space between pedestrians, vehicles and cyclists reaching fever pitch, let's throw another spanner in the works: plans for more green space in the area. Westminster Council wants to:

Deliver an ambitious greening programme for the whole district, including side streets, by providing many new street trees, pop up parks and oases for relaxation, rest or play

Honestly, we'd LOVE to see more green space in and around Oxford Street. But with space at such a premium, should pop up parks — whatever than means — really be a priority?

Will Oxford Street become more offices than shops?

ANOTHER suggested plan is to "Enable space on higher floors on Oxford Street to have different and diverse uses to bring new life and vibrancy to the district". Does that mean we'll be seeing a gym on the top floor of Debenhams? Will WeWork continue its citywide takeover by hijacking House of Fraser? Will the world-famous shopping street become more offices than shops?

If landlords are struggling to fill the retails spaces, putting them to other uses is certainly better than letting them languish, particularly in a city as short on space as London. But imagine the asking price for a penthouse on Oxford Street. Perhaps some homeless shelters would be a good use of the space.

It seems the main driving force behind this focus on Oxford Street is the imminent (ish) arrival of Crossrail at Tottenham Court Road and Bond Street stations. Westminster Council predicts this will bring an extra 20 million people into the Oxford Street area every year by 2020, and right now, there's nowhere for them to go.

Westminster Council's Cabinet will meet on Thursday (25 October) to consider the proposals, before the final plans are put to public consultation between 6 November and 16 December. But right now, it reads like an attempt at throwing several ideas at a wall, and hoping that one or two of them stick.

Last Updated 19 October 2018