Recently we experienced the temporary closure of central London, brought to us by the Extinction Rebellion movement. This effectively introduced the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street by other means, if only for 2 weeks, and further confirmed our fears of just how disastrous the permanent closure of Oxford Street would have been for Marylebone.
Whilst some may have eulogized over the wonders of a traffic free Oxford Street and may have been breathing cleaner air whilst camping out at Marble Arch, those who actually live in the surrounding areas certainly were not. For them the nightmare of clogged roads, massive increases in pollution and inability to get in and out of the area confirmed what they had known all along: closing Oxford Street to traffic doesn’t make it disappear - it just sends all its traffic into the surrounding areas. Businesses were also unenamoured with this particular experiment having experienced drops in footfall of between 15% and 25% over the period of the closures.
So it was with good reason that this time last year we were all breathing a sigh of relief when Westminster Council announced they were dumping the Mayor’s previous pedestrianisation scheme for Oxford Street. Promises had been made by the Leader of Westminster Council and others that pedestrianisation was, ‘off the table for good’ following a resounding electoral mandate against the Mayor’s and TfL proposals. It appeared then that the struggle to defend our area from Oxford Street’s unwanted traffic had been decisively won.
However, things were never going to be quite that straightforward. It was always apparent that the political pressure would still be on Westminster Council to be seen to be doing something with the area. The question was what? And would it continue to honour all those promises made during the election and just after?
We did not need to wait too long to find out. In October 2018 Westminster Council formerly announced a major new plan to put £150 million into improvements over the whole Oxford Street district via a comprehensive new Place Shaping and Delivery Plan. This new district wide approach was broadly welcomed by many of those organisations who had previously vigorously opposed the Mayor’s plans, including our own Marylebone Association. The fact that many suggestions previously made by us and other amenity societies had clearly been listened to and incorporated in the plan made it easy for us to endorse much of what was being proposed.
However, as the details of the plans emerged through the course of the ensuing consultation, we discovered that it contained some concerning aspects. Some proposals, reminiscent of the previous scheme, had re-emerged, namely those that advocated the closing or the severe restricting of Oxford Street traffic. As these were contained amongst the large amount of detail about much else, their extent and severity may not have yet been readily appreciated.
These proposals appear to undermine the principle and purpose of keeping Oxford Street open to traffic and could result in outcomes that we previously understood had been unambiguously abandoned by Westminster Council. In addition they contradict statements made by Westminster both during the recent elections and since the rejection of the joint TfL consultation. They even appear to contradict statements made elsewhere in the Council’s own Strategy.
There are three main proposals that give us cause for concern and we are disappointed, and not a little surprised, to see their re-emergence now after all that Westminster has previously said. Given their relative importance to residents and businesses, and given that they would re-introduce in part what was widely found to be unacceptable in the previous scheme, they need to be clearly stated:
A. The proposal to close the section of road around Oxford Circus between John Prince’s Street and Great Portland Street to all east-west traffic and pedestrianise it.
B. The proposal to restrict the width of Oxford Street to 2 carriageways only, along its entire length.
C. The proposal to close certain sections of Oxford Street to all traffic other than buses at certain times of the day.
The most worrying of these proposals is the scheme to pedestrianise Oxford Circus. When WCC promised to abandon pedestrianisation for good, both during and after the election, we assumed that meant in any part of Oxford Street. But this proposal resurrects some of the worst aspects of the Mayor’s discredited scheme. In routing all traffic around neighbouring roads it reintroduces pedestrianisation by recreating a miniature version of the previous plan - that is by creating a needless diversion around a straight line.
Only in 2009, £5 million was spent in upgrading Oxford Circus to the new diagonal crossing and since then it has become one of the roads most famous features. At the time Westminster Council welcomed this as a major triumph in accommodating safely the many numbers of pedestrians in the area. The figures have not changed appreciably since then.
Yet here is a proposal to force vehicles to travel at least 3 times as far to get around Oxford Circus rather than through it. The extra time and hassle that this route entails would inevitably deter bus users from using it due to the extra time added to the journey and would result in traffic displacement through neighbouring areas by taxis and other vehicles trying to avoid it. This in turn will generate more pollution and congestion. In addition, even this does not go far enough for the Mayor, who is ‘underwhelmed’ by it. Residents will not want it, so who is this designed to please?
Well, it certainly appears to please the Crown Estates. They are the owners of Regent Street and see this as an opportunity to create a gateway project for the area. They are, as a result, prepared to contribute to the costs of undertaking the scheme. Westminster Council could find this attractive as they need to take the pressure off their allocated £150 million budget for the area, as the estimated cost of all the works proposed by the Council is presently estimated to be £232 million.
The principle reason claimed for the proposal it is that of pedestrian safety: that the opening of the new Elizabeth Line (formerly Crossrail) and the resulting extra numbers of travellers will lead to dangerous overcrowding on the pavements and crossings around Oxford Circus. However the principle reason we oppose it is equally on grounds of safety: the scheme proposes to substitute no less than 4 major turns for all traffic travelling along the length of Oxford Street where at present there are none. Each one of these new turns runs across very busy streets which will bring traffic into conflict with pedestrians.
Rather than improve safety, the potential for accidents will merely be displaced to the smaller roads behind Oxford Circus and indeed, due to all the additional turns made necessary, may be dramatically increased. As for the Elizabeth Line, this project, now 2 billion pounds over budget, has recently postponed yet again, to some time in 2021. TfL have lost all credibility with regard to their time projections on this project - why should their projected footfall figures be any more accurate than their timings? .
In any case this is the very area that, as a result of the opening of the Elizabeth Line, is forecast to have some of the pedestrian pressure removed and to see a relative decline in numbers. The new Bond Street/Hanover Square stations will take on many of the journeys that previously terminated at Oxford Circus. And this will continue into the future - on WCC’s own figures - during the first 5 years of its operation numbers at Bond Street will be up by 22%, at Tottenham Court Road by 25%, whereas the increase forecast for Oxford Circus is 6%. Does this really merit permanently closing Oxford Circus to all east-west traffic?
Although it is recognised that there is room for further improvement we would have hoped that this could be realised within the context of the work previously undertaken. For instance, buses and other vehicle turns at Oxford Circus could be banned whilst retaining an east-west flow. Further, the proposals for Oxford Circus appear to be in conflict with the Strategy’s own aspirations for John Prince’s Street which will hardly benefit from having all the Oxford Street traffic routed through it.
Yet a further problem with the closure of Oxford Circus will likely arise in accommodating the additional traffic crossing in Upper Regent Street as this will require longer red light phases against north-south traffic. However, this traffic already faces considerable congestion from the single lane at Oxford Circus often backing up beyond Langham Place and into Portland Place.
The proposed diversions will therefore be dangerous, they will cause more pollution and will no doubt result in drivers using alternative routes through the surrounding areas, causing yet further traffic displacement into our neighbourhoods.
It is significant that whereas the Westminster consultation experienced a high positive response overall, it actually failed to get approval for this scheme. The consultation analysis (Taken from the Steer Report dated February 2019) shows that the proposals for Zone F. - Oxford Circus - 45% strongly opposed or tended to oppose the proposals, with only 39% of Westminster residents strongly supporting or tending to support them. Also, the most frequent comments from stakeholders regarding the draft Place Strategy was fear of traffic displacement - approximately 50% cited this, by far the highest of all the concerns listed.
The other proposals of concern involving traffic restrictions, or removal, of all non-bus traffic on Oxford Street at certain times of the day will again be bad for Marylebone. These ideas did not get a specific question in the consultation, but they did emerge in part under the proposals for Zone C (the part of Oxford Street containing Selfridges department store, where Oxford Street connects Baker Street and the Mayfair streets of Duke Street, Orchard Street and North Audley Street). Here also respondents generally opposed the proposals outlined in the draft Place Strategy.
So far, we only have outline proposals for all these schemes. The methodology to justify them is at present being developed, for instance through traffic modelling - which as previous experience has shown, cannot be entirely trusted. The Council stated that issues arising from the proposals will be listened to and taken into account before deciding which ideas to take forward. But the issues arising from them have been stated clearly by us and others and they have been rejected by the majority of respondents to the consultation - but still they have been recommended to be taken forward.
Accordingly, whilst we look forward to and support the successful introduction of the large majority of the proposals in the Strategy, we will continue to press our objections to this the parts of the overall scheme we feel will damage Marylebone, for all the reasons outlined above.