Christian Wolmar: Get rid of the buses and taxis or Oxford Street won’t survive

Articles, LondonUnlockedEditorComment

200812100842.jpgReprinted in full from the Evening Standard:

OXFORD Street is packed with Christmas shoppers - and it's a nightmare. Billed as Britain's premier shopping street, in reality it is a permanent gridlock of people, buses and taxis with a polluted, congested and dirty atmosphere that is increasingly becoming unacceptable to shoppers.

Everyone agrees that it can't go on like this. Even the New West End Company, representing Oxford Street's retailers, accepts that "there has got to be a better solution" than the current situation with shoppers being crowded onto narrow footways while empty buses and taxis ply their trade in the permanent traffic jam down the middle.

But the crush and the credit crunch are not the only threats to Oxford Street's viability. My daughter is off to do her Christmas shopping in Westfield rather than her traditional haunt of Oxford Street - and we live in far-off north London. Her friends are following suit.

With two more major shopping centres at King's Cross and Stratford to come, competition is hotting up in London's retail scene. As shoppers discover the pleasures of shopping in pleasant warm malls, without having to venture out of overheated shops through those ghastly fan heaters into the freezing cold, Oxford Street could be plunged into an irreversible downward spiral unless there is a huge improvement in its ambience.

And the only way to do that is to get rid of the smelly buses and taxis thronging the street. The success of the fourth annual VIP (Very Important Pedestrians) day at the weekend, when both Oxford and Regent Streets were closed to all traffic, suggests that it is the only feasible long-term solution to its problems.

According to the retailers, far more than one million people came to the area and yet London did not grind to a halt as opponents of the pedestrianisation suggest, even though there were problems on two Tube lines as well as a climate-change march. Sure, some people had to walk a bit further to reach a station, and some suburban bus services were disrupted but, by and large, London coped, as it always does.

London lags well behind other European cities in terms of creating a pleasant city-centre environment for its shoppers. Whereas virtually every capital city, such as Stockholm, Copenhagen, Vienna and even Paris, have long pedestrianised streets where premium retailers are concentrated, London has converted only a few, such as Carnaby Street and Leicester Square.

Both have been great successes but there has always been fierce resistance to pedestrianisation schemes in London.

Leicester Square took 20 years to fully pedestrianise - older Londoners will remember when the west side still allowed cars - and has contributed to the vibrancy of the West End entertainment scene. No one would suggest reversing that decision today, despite the lengthy controversy that delayed the inevitable.

The view among retailers about banning buses and taxis has changed. In the past they resisted pedestrianisation, arguing that it would reduce footfall because people want to know where they can park as close as possible to the shops. In fact, there is now a considerable body of research to show that the opposite is true.

Tony Armstrong, the head of pedestrians organisation Living Streets, says that far from losing customers, pedestrianisation, on average, increases turnover by 17 per cent and often very much more.

"When we did a survey at the VIP event last year, 92 per cent liked it and 70 per cent said it made them more likely to shop there," he says.

This is a big opportunity for Boris Johnson. While welcoming the weekend pedestrianisation, he is taking a cautious approach. He told the Evening Standard: "I accept there is a need for buses and taxis to use Oxford Street but I have asked for a thorough review of bus services in the area to see if the situation can be improved." In particular, he has asked his Transport Commissioner to take 10 per cent of buses out of Oxford Street both next year and in 2010. But this is not the sort of direct approach to getting things done that we expect from the plain-speaking Mayor.

For the Olympics, many major roads will be turned over to VIP use only. There is talk of banning normal traffic from the central area for the whole duration of the Games and even possibly making that permanent. This is the kind of radical thinking that is so badly needed but has been noticeably absent, which is why Oxford Street today is such a mess.

There is no doubt that instantly expecting Oxford Street to be permanently pedestrianised is a big ask, although that must be the medium-term goal. But Johnson could make a good start by booting all the taxis out.

By God, how they will moan as they are the biggest vested interest group in the capital. They even objected to Saturday's VIP day. But a lot of the time they clog up the street even more than buses and serve no purpose, since no one is mad enough to take a taxi along Oxford Street and spend £15 getting between Marble Arch and Tottenham Court Road. In compensation, taxi ranks could be created down most side streets, ensuring people had access. But would Boris have the courage to take them on?

As for the buses, it's true that moving the 18 bus routes along Oxford Street, which cater for up to 175,000 passengers per day, will not be easy. Some could go along Wigmore Street, despite the protests of the affluent locals. Others could turn around at Tottenham Court Road or Marble Arch, since most of the buses along the street are empty anyway. Smaller buses could be used in the side streets, as happens in places like Vienna. With enough political will, a way will be found.

Then we could have a monthly VIP day, say the first Saturday of every month, which would be a fantastic testing ground for ironing out problems. Extra accommodation for buses would be needed, and possibly extra vehicles to ensure a smoother service for the suburbs, which suffered on Saturday, but it would be a great start to improving Oxford Street. Hundreds of thousands of extra shoppers would be attracted, and the feel of the whole street would start to change.

But we can't just do nothing. Despite the retailers' PR stressing that all is wonderful and that Westfield, with an expected turnover of £600 million compared with Oxford Street's £5.5 billion is no more a threat than Shepherd's Bush Market, the street faces a crisis. And it is no good, as Transport for London suggests, waiting for Crossrail, which will not be completed for nearly a decade. By then, shopping anywhere except online, let alone in Oxford Street, might have gone out of fashion.