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.
Oxford Street schemes that never were
Planners and politicians have been arguing about improving the West End’s roads since the Buchanan Report of 1963. Colin Buchanan himself described the state of Oxford Street as “a travesty of conditions as they ought to be in a great capital city”. But in those days movement was king: Lord Holford’s comprehensive redevelopment proposal for Piccadilly Circus was rejected, not because of the destruction it would have caused to the landmark, but because it would have restricted traffic. The removal of private cars from Oxford Street was only won because the bus lobby thought it would allow buses to move more freely.
There have been numerous ingenious plans for overcoming the complex problem of making a better place and keeping the traffic moving. One, by the architect Bryan Avery, proposed a pedestrianisation scheme for Oxford Street 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.
The future of Oxford Street
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.
Whatever route is selected, something needs to start happening soon, as the launch of Crossrail in 2018 draws ever closer. A report in 2014, authored by Alex Jan of Arup, indicated that Bond Street, Tottenham Court Road and Farringdon stations will deliver some 745,000 people to central London per day by 2026. During the average weekday afternoon peak, it is projected that 34,000 passengers per hour will enter and exit Bond Street station alone. The current infrastructure of pavements and crossings simply cannot absorb such an increase.
In June 2015 the West End Partnership launched a Vision for the West End, which suggested that Oxford Street West (the area to the west of Oxford Circus) should be “the world’s best outdoor street shopping experience, achieved by a reduction in vehicles with greater use of surrounding streets for loading, servicing and taxi pick-up”, accepting that any solution for Oxford Street needed to include the hinterland as well.
Peter Vernon, CEO of Grosvenor Estate and Vice Chairman of the West End Partnership, rounded off the speech in which he introduced the Vision report by saying that changes to Oxford Street can be the “launchpad for reimagined districts north and south of it”. There was little mention of getting rid of traffic.
Following commitments made in his election manifesto to pedestrianise Oxford street, Sadiq Khan announced in July 2016 that vehicles would be banned from Tottenham Court Road in the east to beyond Selfridges in the west by 2020. A final stretch, up to Marble Arch, is due to be completed by 2025.
Oxford Street East, with its smaller units and shabbier shops, has long been the poor cousin of the stretch between Oxford Circus and Marble Arch, but change is on its way. The redevelopment of the old Rathbone Place Post Office site, two Crossrail station exits, the award-winning Zara store, the redevelopment of Centre Point, and public space improvements around Tottenham Court Road station are giving the area a much-needed boost.
The Park Lane problem
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.
Tackling Pall Mall and Charing Cross Road
The other two sides of the West End perimeter, Pall Mall and Charing Cross Road, are making better progress. They form part of a Londonwide plan to get rid of gyratories in places like Vauxhall, Elephant and Castle, Baker Street and Aldgate. Rolled out in the 60s and 70s, these certainly sped up the traffic, reducing permeability as well as quality of place, but did little to reduce congestion.
To the south of the West End, Pall Mall and Piccadilly have been transformed from one-way racetracks into more amenable two-way streets, increasing permeability and reducing the isolation of the St James’s urban block. Other improvements to the streetscape and public realm have since been carried out in Lower Regent Street, Waterloo Place and Haymarket with wider pavements, new street lighting, less street clutter, better pedestrian crossings and Yorkstone paving.
Work has yet to start on similar improvements to the eastern boulevard. Charing Cross Road is the boundary between Camden and Westminster. Scruffy and careworn, it is the scene of many battles between the two boroughs – not least in recent years over the improvements surrounding the entrance to Tottenham Court Road tube and Crossrail station. As the LSE’s Tony Travers frequently points out, edges – particularly those between boroughs – are unloved, uncared-for, and often places of discord.
Back in 1961, Tottenham Court Road and Charing Cross Road north of Cambridge Circus were made one-way northbound, while southbound traffic was routed one way down Gower Street. This isolated a big chunk of Fitzrovia, segregating it from Bloomsbury while doing little to achieve its original aim of reducing congestion.
There is a plan that, by the end of 2018 when Crossrail opens, traffic on Charing Cross Road and Tottenham Court Road will be restricted to buses and cycles during the day. Gower Street will revert to two-way use with a segregated cycle route. Taxis and delivery vehicles will be barred from using Tottenham Court Road as a through-route, while new landscaping in the area will improve the pedestrian experience.
Improving the public realm
Existing infrastructure and congested underground conditions in most of these improved boulevards sadly make tree planting impossible. This is unfortunate: as well as making the urban landscape more pleasant, trees have a positive impact on air pollution, the urban heat island effect, noise pollution and mental wellbeing. In addition, according to Peter Heath of Atkins, the long views of historic Grade I buildings along Pall Mall from St James’s Palace to the National Gallery are important townscape assets that would be obscured by trees.
In Charing Cross Road, the need to cater for pedestrian surges and the dense underground services (including a large unused tram power route tunnel running north-south just below the surface) have also made tree planting impossible. There are ways that these streets can be improved without major works – better street finishes, wider pavements, well-lit buildings, new architecture that addresses the street, and more sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS).
SUDS should be the accepted norm for all road improvements in the capital. Increasingly severe storms, when rains run off the streets straight into the drains, are overloading Joseph Bazalgette’s 19th-century sewer system. The solution is to create small landscaped areas which absorb the run-off and delay its passage into the drainage system. These pockets of landscaping both enhance the street and deliver a more sustainable city.
To relieve overcrowding on pavements, the West End boroughs could take a leaf out of the City of London’s book and fix street lamps to buildings, rather than cluttering pavement with bulky posts.
The West End boulevard where these ideas are most successfully displayed is, of course, Regent Street, created by John Nash in the early 19th century. It has hugely benefited from the single ownership of the Crown Estate, which has delivered good stewardship and public space improvements – including the Oxford Circus diagonal crossing, the peninsularisation of Piccadilly, and the more recent re-creation of St James’s Market between Haymarket and Lower Regent Street.
Within the approximate geography of the urban box described above, Alex Jan has proposed a plan entitled The West End Weave, a long-term strategy of improving the complex network of streets that covers the West End with dedicated routes – providing priority to certain transport modes depending on location, character and local context. The endgame is “a more coherent, better-connected, safer and healthier West End”.
In the 50 or so years since the Buchanan Report, 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.
According to Deputy Mayor for Transport Val Shawcross, the “blockage and resistance” to pedestrianisation of Oxford Street is around the deployment of buses in central London. “TfL had become stuck in a bit of a time warp – God bless them,” she says. Shawcross is now ex officio the Deputy Chair of TfL and in a position to make things happen.
More coordinated and longer-term thinking may also result from the New West End’s successful creation of a Business Improvement District. Property owners have a real interest in the long-term value of their holdings: they look after them well and benefit from the increase in value generated by improvements.
In 2004, the influential Danish planner Jan Gehl wrote a report about improving public space in the West End entitled Towards a Fine City for People. When he returned to London a decade later, he made no bones about his disappointment at the rate of progress. Today, though, he would surely be impressed by the improvements to St James’s and Pall Mall (in spite of the poor provision for cyclists), make positive noises about the proposed improvements to Charing Cross Road, and support the long shot of Hennessy’s Park Lane proposals.
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.
This piece was written for the Centre for London essay series and also appeared in Dave Hill's On London website