Despite support from the Mayor of London, Westminster City Council have recently put the proposals to pedestrianise Oxford Street on hold. Whilst this may be a politically motivated move, it may also be a good time to reflect on what we aim to achieve through pedestrianisation schemes in Central London. Often the solutions are more complex than transport and congestion issues, and involve questions of how urban spaces are used and function.
The initial responses to the Oxford Street proposals seemed to be largely positive. And why not? Bus routes have been reduced along the stretch for the past few years, with little complaint from the public. And soon the Elizabeth Line will take you almost the length of the street in minutes. It will promote more walking (hitting the Mayor’s ‘Healthy Streets’ agenda), reduce the shockingly high number of pedestrian/traffic collisions (around one a week), and reduce air pollution to boot!
In fact, it seems like such a popular idea that Zaha Hadid architects decided to go one further and unveiled their Walkable London research proposal a few months back. The initiative proposes an inter-connected network of pedestrianised walking routes and zones stretching across Central London. They argued that this would better capitalise on all the afore-mentioned benefits. This may not be such a crazy idea; Inner London has never been a car-dependent city.
However, I’d argue that such proposals often lack a planner’s eye. Things never exist in isolation and discussions around pedestrianisation are not just transport planning issues. It is not enough to reconfigure traffic and public transport logistics and capacities. Pedestrianisation is also a land use issue.
People fundamentally behave differently in pedestrianised spaces, as their experience becomes profoundly different. Often, journeys no longer become simply about getting from A to B, but pedestrianised spaces become spaces to be experienced and enjoyed. As such, the uses and features along a street often inevitably change to suit this new dynamic – cafes, retail, pop-ups, community space, increased street furniture and public art. In short, places to be rather than to pass through.
As ever, our Scandinavian neighbours can often provide the best examples. The pedestrianisation of Copenhagen’s main street, Strøget, in the 1960s was a resounding success despite being a heavy traffic thoroughfare prior. The creation of a space to spend time in increased footfall and retail profits whilst also revitalising the city centre. However, therein lies the rub- Strøget, like Oxford Street, was already a main retail street in the heart of the city centre.
Walkable London traces lengths of roads within London but doesn’t quite capture the land issues that are at the heart of considering a place and how people move within that space. Business districts, such as Canary Wharf and the Square Mile, obviously need a very different approach to walkable streets than Oxford street. Why? Because these are locations that require a huge footfall between transport infrastructure and workplaces, not retail and leisure facilities. In such business centres, it would be far more suited condensed pockets of pedestrianised open spaces such as squares, which are clearly differentiated from the main walkable thoroughfare.
Ultimately, pedestrianisation plans can be great – as can creative eye-catching proposals. However, such plans need to define clearly what spaces should be pedestrianised, and how this complements their existing use; not just doing it for its own sake.