London to Boot Cars From Its Busiest Shopping Street

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Thanks to a recently unveiled pedestrianization plan, London's most pollution-shrouded retail corridor will complete its transformation into an open-air shopping mall by 2020. But along with buses and taxis, bikes will be banished, too. (Photo: Andrew Stawarz/flickr)

The holiday shopping season is now officially underway on Oxford Street, the London thoroughfare best known for its bevy of brand-name retailers and heavy traffic of both the vehicular and human variety.

As anyone who has braved Oxford Street during the weeks leading up to Christmas can attest, a visit to London's busiest shopping corridor this time of year isn't for the weak of heart (or the claustrophobic). With 75,000 LED lights twinkling overhead, the sidewalks are transformed into a battlefield of sharp elbows, swinging Topshop bags and barbed tongues. Anchored by department store stalwarts Selfridges and John Lewis, Oxford Street is a quintessential London attraction for good reason. But it can also be more than a bit nutty come November and December, leaving many Londoners and tourists alike wondering the exact same thing as they push through waves of frenzied holiday shoppers:

Wouldn't this all be a bit more manageable if the street was closed off to vehicle traffic altogether?

On the Saturday before Christmas from 2005 to 2012, Oxford Street was completely closed off to vehicles including the never-ending stream of taxis and buses that clog the street during peak shopping hours. Dubbed VIP (Very Important Pedestrian) Day, the one-day, once-a-year event was a smash. Sales soared and reactions from shoppers, who no doubt relished the opportunity to spill out into the street with extra room to exist, were positive. But, alas, it didn't last.

London's Oxford Street with Holiday Lights, Nov. 2017
On Nov. 7, pop singer Rita Ora flipped the switch on Oxford Street's annual holiday light display, a spectacle that draws massive crowds to the shopping corridor's already jam-packed sidewalks. (Photo: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images)

And then along came London Mayor Sadiq Khan. During his 2015 election, Kahn called for the full pedestrianization of Oxford Street in an effort to curb both the street's woeful air pollutant levels and the high number of pedestrian-vehicle accidents. No taxis, no buses and no private vehicles, which are normally only permitted on Oxford Street between the hours of 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. No forms of ground transport at all, at anytime. An act that was once deemed impossible was now, under Kahn, made feasible.

Now, it would appear that Christmas has come early for those who have long wished for vehicles to be banished from Oxford Street with the announcement that the first phase of an ambitious pedestrianization scheme could — if all goes to plan — be completed by the end of 2018 ahead of next year's holiday shopping madness.

Artistic rendering of a pedestrianized Oxford Street, London
A vision of car-free loveliness: Freed at long last from bus and taxi traffic, Oxford street would be filled with public art and leafy plazas for sitting and relaxing. (Photo: Transport for London)

Freed from buses and taxis, Oxford Street would be filled with public art and leafy plazas for taking a load off after hitting up Topshop, Selfridges and hundreds of other retailers that line the street. (Rendering: Transport for London)

'Creating one of the finest public spaces in the world'

Per the pedestrianization proposal unveiled by the Mayor's Office, the first section of 1.2-mile-long Oxford Street to be liberated of vehicular traffic is a particularly congested western stretch of the street running a half-mile from Oxford Circus — home to a titular Tube station that serves as the busiest rapid transit station in the entire United Kingdom — to Orchard Street. As reported by the Guardian, this first phase would come with a price tag of £60 million (roughly $79 million).

Two additional phases are tentatively planned for completion by 2020. The first would revamp a section of Oxford Street stretching eastward from Oxford Circus to Tottenham Court Road while the final piece of the pedestrianization puzzle would conquer the westernmost stretch of the street between Orchard Street and Hyde Park at Marble Arch.

"Oxford Street is world famous with millions of visitors every year, and in just over a year the iconic part of the street west of Oxford Circus could be transformed into a traffic-free pedestrian boulevard," Khan proclaimed at a media unveiling earlier this month. "Whether you're a local resident, a business or shop in some of the area's famous stores, our plans will make the area substantially cleaner and safer for everyone, creating one of the finest public spaces in the world."

The pedestrianization project has the full blessing of New West End Company, a business organization representing the roughly 600 retailers — from Adidas to Zara — on and around Oxford Street as well neighboring Bond and Regent streets. "Removing the wall of red buses from Oxford Street will reduce congestion and improve air quality," says New West End Company honcho Jace Tyrrell.

Traffic on Oxford Street
While private cars are verboten from traveling on Oxford Street during most of the day, the street famously suffers from major bus and taxi congestion. (Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

So about those buses and air quality …

A 2014 study conducted by scientists at King's College found that Oxford Street had the highest concentration of nitrogen dioxide pollution in the entire world. Between the peak hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. when buses and taxis were out in full force, 463 micrograms of nitrogen dioxide per cubic meter of air (μg/m3) were recorded. The "safe" maximum established by the EU is 40 μg/m3. Even when averaging in overnight traffic when bus and taxi traffic dies off and private cars are permitted to use the street, the average levels of nitrogen dioxide were recorded at 135 μg/m3 — a level still alarmingly exceeding the EU maximum.

Artistic rendering of Oxford Street, London, sans cars
Artistic rendering of Oxford Street, London, sans cars. (Photo: Transport for London)

In 2016, the BBC reported that buses traveling along Oxford Street — a vital east/west transport corridor with an estimated 175,000 riders embarking or disembarking along the street every day — move at a painful crawl of 4.6 miles per hour. By comparison, those traveling by foot progressed at 3.1 miles per hour.

In June 2016, a press release issued by the mayor's office noted that roughly 270 buses travel down Oxford Street every hour although Transport for London (TfL) has begun working diligently to reduce this number without leaving bus commuters in the lurch.

Accompanying this brutal, air quality-compromising congestion are longtime pedestrian safety concerns. Between January 2012 and September 2015, collisions involving pedestrians and vehicles occurred about every seven days. Most of these collisions, mercifully, were not fatal. In May 2016, however, there was a deadly accident involving a pedestrian and a bus. Earlier this year, an elderly pedestrian died after being struck by a cyclist.

To better understand the sheer crush of people descending on Oxford Street, it's estimated that a staggering half-million people visit the fabled retail destination each day. That figure, obviously, rises during the holidays. When not arriving by bus or taxi, hundreds of thousands pedestrians access Oxford Street via four Tube stations lining the street including the aforementioned Oxford Circus Station. As Lloyd at sister site TreeHugger succinctly points out, it's basically a "horror show."

Aerial rendering of Oxford Street pedestrianization
By 2020, all 1.2 miles of Oxford Street, from Marble Arch to Tottenham Court Road, will be fully pedestrianized. The first phase is slated for completion by 2018. (Photo: Transport for London)

By 2020, all 1.2 miles of Oxford Street, from Marble Arch to Tottenham Court Road, will be fully pedestrianized. The first phase is slated for completion by the end of 2018. (Rendering: Transport for London)

Two-wheeled transport gets the boot, too

In addition to banishing all forms of transport between Oxford Circle and Orchard Street, the first phase of the Oxford Street pedestrianization plan involves gussying up the pavement with eye-catching public art and elevating the two-lane street itself to the same level as the sidewalks. This would allow for greater access for those with disabilities. Spacious public plazas with benches and greenery would also dot the new pedestrians-only zone. Large taxi stands would be built out near — but not on — Oxford Street allowing for convenient pick-ups and drop-offs. At certain intersections crossing Oxford Street, north-south traffic will continue to flow as normal.

This all, of course, requires the careful rerouting of traffic. Business and residents of neighborhoods streets in Westminster have long expressed concern that pushing traffic off Oxford Street will only lead to crippling congestion elsewhere. TfL, however, is confident that diverting traffic won't necessarily make things worse elsewhere, particularly with the arrival of the Elizabeth Line, a new commuter rail line that will approve accessibility and ease congestion at existing Tube stations (but also likely bring even more foot traffic to the area.)

Crowded sidewalks during the holidays on Oxford Street, London.
An estimated 4 million visitors per week hit the pavement of Oxford Street, one of the busiest shopping streets in all of Europe. The crowded sidewalks swell during the holiday season. (Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

One element of the Oxford Street traffic diversion scheme that's been met with early backlash concerns a form of transport popular through central London: bicycling.

Once Oxford Street is pedestrianized, cyclists who once shared the road with buses, taxis and rickshaws will be forced to dismount and walk their bikes through the pedestrian zone or veer off course and use alternate routes. Yes, essentially bikes will be banned from Oxford Street along with motor vehicles.

Writing for the Guardian, former London Cycling Commissioner Andrew Gilligan calls the plan an "unqualified disaster for cycling in London, perhaps the single biggest blow it has suffered in years."

Gilligan notes that while the proposal goes into great detail about the fate of vehicular traffic once Oxford Street is transformed, plans outlining what will happen to cyclists are frustratingly sparse. Per TfL figures, 2,000 cyclists use the stretch of Oxford Street between Oxford Circus and Orchard Road on a daily basis while 5,000 cyclists use the eastern stretch between Oxford Circus and Tottenham Court Road that's due to be pedestrianized in 2019.

Bicyclist on busy Oxford Street, London
Cyclists are used to braving Oxford Street. However, the current pedestrianization plans would require them to dismount and walk their bikes or seek alternative routes. (Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Gilligan believes that sending a message to Londoners that "cyclists and pedestrians can't co-exist on an 80-foot-wide street" is a troubling one. He also thinks that if forced to use just-as-busy parallel roads (roads potentially made even busier by diverted buses and taxis), cyclists will continue to ride down Oxford Street.

What will almost certainly happen, therefore, is that large numbers of cyclists will ignore the ban. Oxford Street will become London's biggest unofficial example of the notorious failure that is ‘shared space.' That won't be good for pedestrians, or for the image of cycling. There will be near-misses or worse, arrests, fines, stories in the Daily Mail. For the avoidance of doubt, I do not approve of anyone disobeying the rules. But it's what happens when you make proposals for a road that totally ignore one of its main user groups.

So what does Gilligan, a man troubled by the notion of the street being fully transformed into an open-air shopping mall with no accommodation for bikes, think should be done?

For Oxford Street, there's an easy alternative to the certainty of conflict baked into the current plans: allow bikes, but design out the conflict by installing a clearly-defined and separated cycle track that lets both pedestrians and cyclists know where they're supposed to be. You could still roughly treble the space given to pedestrians, which should be more than enough.

He adds:

But here's an even more heretical thought: is pedestrianisation worth the bother? The number of buses on Oxford Street has been hugely reduced in recent years, and could probably be cut down some more while still maintaining a decent service. Private vehicles are already banned. Cycling's gone up and the street's eastern half, at least, is already quite bearable for a pedestrian, with long intervals between buses, yet also accessible for bus users.

No doubt a majority of Londoners would argue that pedestrianization is very much worth the bother.

Air quality in and around Oxford Street will dramatically improve and, with more room to move about, the sidewalk scene will be far less harrowing. Residents who normally avoid Oxford Street will return and businesses will reap the benefits of a safer, cleaner, more attractive streetscape. In turn, a fully pedestrianized Oxford Street will join the ranks of Copenhagen's legendary Strøget (the longest pedestrian shopping street in the world), Buchanan Street in Glasgow, Via Dane in Milan, Miami's Lincoln Road and the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California, as one of the world's great pedestrian-only paradises.

Here's hoping, in lieu of hurling insults at Kahn and embracing a doom-and-gloom worst-case scenario, cycling activists and TfL can come together on a sensible, safe way to work cyclists into the equation, too.

The plans are now subject to a period of public consultation lasting through Dec. 17.

Inset rendering: Transport for London