On 14 July The Times newspaper ran a story “Oxford Street to ban all traffic” and reported that “Vehicles will be banned from the busiest shopping street in Europe within four years to reduce congestion and pollution, the mayor of London’s office announced”. The story was later repeated in other news media including the Evening Standard.
The source of the story was deputy mayor for transport Valerie Shawcross’s answers to questions from London Assembly transport committee members at a public meeting on 13 July.
Below is an extract of the (draft) transcript, which was published today, of the discussion on the proposed pedestrianisation of Oxford Street.
Caroline Pidgeon MBE AM (Chair): In four years’ time, what are going to be the main improvements to transport that passengers can expect?
Valerie Shawcross CBE (Deputy Mayor for Transport): We certainly expect to deliver most of – and we can go into detail on this – a major pedestrianisation scheme for Oxford Street.
Florence Eshalomi AM: At our first Transport Committee meeting we had a range of people discussing how we would look at Oxford Street and pedestrianisation and some of the issues you have already touched on around air quality and around congestion, which all have a major impact on Oxford Street. The reality is that there are 500,000 people using Oxford Street on a daily basis and over 270 buses. With the amount of taxis and the amount of other people using it, pedestrian safety and air quality are all big issues. In terms of that big commitment from Sadiq [Khan, Mayor of London] on pedestrianisation, how likely do you think that that is going to happen before 2020?
Valerie Shawcross CBE (Deputy Mayor for Transport): The outline proposal that we are working with the local partners on now is basically to get Oxford Street pedestrianised in three tranches. This is all provisional and it is very early days, but it would mean getting the two big tranches – Oxford Street East from the new Crossrail station into Oxford Circus first and Oxford Street West stopping just short of Marble Arch second, which would be over three quarters of Oxford Street – done before 2020. The last bit at the Marble Arch end going up to Marble Arch Station is a bit more complex and would probably fall over into the post-election period, but the proposal is to go from Marble Arch to Tottenham Court Road. We have been talking about that enhanced ambition to all of the partners in there and of course, principally, Westminster Council, whose road it is.
Florence Eshalomi AM: — just to get the full scale of the different challenges that would come up. It is good that it is going to be in phases, but have there been any discussions in terms of whether the Mayor and you would be looking at part-pedestrianisation instead of full pedestrianisation?
Valerie Shawcross CBE (Deputy Mayor for Transport): We have probably done more on this particular project than most of the others. We have had a lot of contact with Westminster Council, with the New West End [Company] partnership, with the West End Partnership (WEP) itself and with the business community. There is quite a lot being looked at and quite a lot, in consequence, going on within TfL.
It seemed to me that the blockage and the resistance that there was around the delivery of the
pedestrianisation of Oxford Street has been around this issue of how we deploy bus services in central London. I am a big fan and a supporter of public buses and we need a great bus service, but the way we do it in middle and outer London and the way we do it in central London has to be different. We have to be smarter because, if we intensify routes going out down the radial lines, we completely congest central London. You do not have to be an enemy of the bus to walk around and think, “Wow, look at all these buses. Do we need all of these?”
TfL had become stuck in a bit of a time warp – God bless them – in thinking about the bus services in central London.
I do not want to lose any resources overall for buses, but I can tell you that there is plenty of demand for more buses and frequencies further out and so we have been looking at doing a very complex job of combing the buses out. That would mean, basically, not going to Westminster and saying, “All of these buses that are running this way are going to run down Wigmore Street”. What we are doing is going back and saying that if we look at a heat map around Oxford Street for some distance, we need to reduce the bus movements in that area much more substantially – certainly in advance of the opening of the Crossrail station in 2018 because there will be massive pedestrian congestion – but then to deliver on Oxford Street. That means more interchanges, turn-backs and changes to the routes, but it is a complex problem because we also have to deliver people to work and to shop at Oxford Street. As soon as you start saying, “Let us plan the buses in central London around this smarter approach”, it does liberate quite a lot of thinking about giving ground back to pedestrians not just in Oxford Street but in adjacent areas and improving the public realm.
There are a lot of businesses and people who live around there. Things like service traffic and delivery traffic might mean that we could look at options for daytimes and night-times or after 9.00pm access. That affects the designs that we are using. However, we have to be realistic about this. The city also has to function. We also have to look at where taxis could go because taxis are quite important for the shops and accessibility as well.
It is a complex problem, but we have broken it open in principle by saying that we will be looking at doing some serious redesigning of the buses in central London. We are starting to get some “hoorays” on that one. People are starting to say, “That is good and could you look at the Strand?” One of the things that opens it up for us is the Hopper ticket.
Caroline Pidgeon MBE AM (Chair): That is what we have said for years.
Valerie Shawcross CBE (Deputy Mayor for Transport): You can understand why people want to hang on to their seat on that bus from start to finish if every time they change bus they are getting charged more on a pay-as-you-go. However, if you can interchange and you can surf from one route to the next, you do not necessarily need to go on a bus that is going to go straight through Oxford Street to the other side. You can change here and go around it. There is some liberation of thinking around bus planning and I am very optimistic that that has been going down well.
I was very pleased that at one of the meetings I was at there was a residents’ representative there and I was waiting for him to say, “We do not want our street congested by buses with the noise and the pollution and all of that”, but he said to me, “Actually, I am really concerned to make sure that we have enough buses in our area”. Yes, do not worry. We have to come up with a plan that works for the shops, that works for the businesses, works for the residents and works for people who want to get around London and certainly a plan that Westminster Council will feel that it can promote to its electorate.
I think it can be done, but we do not achieve new things by going back and doing them the same way we have always done them. The paradigm shift on this one is changing the thinking about bus route planning. Does that …
Florence Eshalomi AM: Yes, that has covered it.
Valerie Shawcross CBE (Deputy Mayor for Transport): Is that what you felt when you talked to …
Florence Eshalomi AM: Yes. Again, there are so many different stakeholders in this and it is about making sure that everyone is fully engaged. A big bang approach may not work in Oxford Street. It is not going to be right.
Valerie Shawcross CBE (Deputy Mayor for Transport): It would have to be achieved over time, but it opens up the prospects for doing it now. Having said that, Florence, I have to do a presentation to the Mayor on this on Thursday and I am hoping that he will be happy with where we are on this.
Florence Eshalomi AM: Yes. One thing I wanted to add as well is that when we had a range of people discussing this at the Committee in June 2016, it was around the issue that a number of pedestrians are not mobile and a number of them get on the bus because taking that step, whether it is from Selfridge’s to John Lewis, is quite a walk for them. When we are designing and changing some of those bus routes, it is making sure that you and TfL are thinking about the range of pedestrians that we do want using Oxford Street and making sure that we are not closing off Oxford Street to some passengers.
Valerie Shawcross CBE (Deputy Mayor for Transport): Disability access is high on our agenda for the whole service, not just for Oxford Street, and it does require thinking. Of course, Crossrail itself will be providing enormous east-west capacity and, thanks to the work of this Committee, it will be 100% disability accessible. There will be improvements, for example, in Tottenham Court Road that will make it better for Tube passengers. That helps. Thinking about access for taxis helps. There will be some bus services in the area, but it will not be of the order and, also, we are talking about parallel running.
This is not within my brief, but I would say that a lot of really good shopping centres run mobility schemes. They provide scooters and stuff.
Florence Eshalomi AM: A door-to-door service, yes.
Valerie Shawcross CBE (Deputy Mayor for Transport): Again, I do not run Oxford Street’s businesses, but the truth is that Oxford Street is now competing with the likes of the rather fabulous Westfields where there is a much more holistic look at the shoppers’ needs and experiences that Oxford Street, maybe, needs. They have been doing some good things —
Florence Eshalomi AM: Is there something that in particular that you want to push?
Valerie Shawcross CBE (Deputy Mayor for Transport): That is part of the conversations that we have been having because one of the things that we have been suggesting to them is that we need more car-free days. The comment back from the business community is that we have to look at it from a business point of view as well. If it is a good experience and is thematic and brings people in and people shop, then that is a good car-free day. A bad car-free day is when it does not add some value. We are also guided by the businesses about how to make these concepts work for themselves.
Lots of shopping centres have disability access schemes and that is something that would probably naturally come if we pedestrianised the area, but it would be very difficult at the moment with the congestion on those pavements in some areas.
Caroline Pidgeon MBE AM (Chair): Do we have a timescale at all for the consultation on this? We are keen to feed in from our visits and the like.
Valerie Shawcross CBE (Deputy Mayor for Transport): All right. This is all very, very provisional, but we would probably be doing the consultations on the initial bus reductions and some of the rerouting to meet the Crossrail reductions around the end of this year, the consultations around the pedestrianisation options next year, and then the public realm implementation at Oxford Street West at the beginning of 2019 and the Oxford Street East implementation starting sometime in the middle of 2019. We are trying to make pretty rapid progress, but it depends how long the detailed design period takes. That could take well over 18 months from mid-2017 until the end of 2018. We are getting on with it and we want to see some progress now.
Around London, there is such a consensus that we need to do this. It was the one thing that every [Mayoral] candidate said that they wanted to do. In the new era that we are in, it is even more important that we make London attractive to global tourists and that when they come to London they look at Oxford Street and say, “Wow, I am in the shopping capital of the world. This is fabulous”, not, “Yuck. I cannot get across the road and I do not feel safe and I am bumping into people”. We have to make Oxford Street a world-beating location. Although we are talking a lot about diverting buses here, there and everywhere, it is because I am doing TfL at the moment. The vision for Oxford Street is fantastic.
Caroline Pidgeon MBE AM (Chair): We had a confidential briefing on some of the plans and it was, for those of us who were there, very exciting actually seeing this vision and energy.
Valerie Shawcross CBE (Deputy Mayor for Transport): Let us make it a world-beating, globally famous shopping location with leisure, culture and arts. There is not enough eating and drinking.
Caroline Pidgeon MBE AM (Chair): Yes, exactly.
Valerie Shawcross CBE (Deputy Mayor for Transport): It is a beautiful location with some fantastic historic buildings there as well that would be great to showcase. It has been sadly neglected as a piece of public realm, partly because it just is so difficult to do. Working in partnership with Westminster, we can really deliver something fantastic for London that visitors will want to come to and is safe as well.
Caroline Pidgeon MBE AM (Chair): Great.
Florence Eshalomi AM: I have just one final thing and it sort of relates to your portfolio but a chunk is under the Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime [Sophie Linden]. You may be aware that Westminster Council is provisionally thinking about turning off its closed-circuit television (CCTV).
Valerie Shawcross CBE (Deputy Mayor for Transport): Yes, I have heard that.
Florence Eshalomi AM: We will see the introduction of the Night Tube on 19 August 2016. I just wanted to know in terms of rerouting some of those buses and you touched on the fact that Oxford Street is quite quiet at night. We found that the only place that was open for food was McDonald’s. Just around that safety, if we are looking at some bus routes still going, I hope that TfL is looking at maybe some going down at night so that there is still some presence on Oxford Street.
Valerie Shawcross CBE (Deputy Mayor for Transport): As I said, it is all provisional, but at the moment the vision would be that if Oxford Street is designed more like a mixed-use type of scheme but with disability concerns in there, it could be opened at night, maybe after 9.00pm, but that is just provisional. Equally, once the vast improvements to the public realm are really securely planned and in and people know what is happening, you will see that there will be business change there and there will be more leisure activities, restaurants, cafés and so forth coming in. That would be a good thing for the area.