Solving London’s air pollution hotspots requires action over a wide area

Why we oppose the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street

Residents in the neighbourhoods around Oxford Street and the campaign group Living Streets now stand facing each other in the first battle over how surface transport should serve London’s busiest shopping street.

Buses and taxis on Oxford Street.

Thousands of shoppers use taxis on Oxford Street. People living in the West End want the Mayor to tackle congestion, air quality and safety rather than just shifting the problems into the surrounding streets.

In an email sent out by Living Streets the campaign group tells its members:

“At Living Streets we were delighted when the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, promised to pedestrianise the iconic shopping street. But opposition remains and we need to make sure that change really does happen.”

The opposition referred to is from people like myself and other residents living in the streets surrounding Oxford Street and who are worried about traffic and pollution being displaced to nearer our homes and where children go to school.

And we are campaigning hard to ensure that we are not forgotten as the first of the public consultations by Westminster council and Transport for London takes place.

Less than 25 percent of households in Fitzrovia have access to a car — among the lowest in the UK — and most people here walk, cycle or use public transport. We are Living Streets’ natural allies.

Yet Living Streets has little grassroots support in our dense Georgian streetscape, and its badly thought-out campaign to pedestrianise Oxford Street is seen as nothing more than a trophy project.

More than 20,000 people live in the streets surrounding Oxford Street but there is little acknowledgement of this or the four schools here from Living Streets.

The 200 children at All Souls Primary School in Foley Street are exposed to an average of 47.9 micrograms of nitrogen dioxide per cubic metre. This exceeds the EU legal limit which is 40 micrograms per cubic metre of air.

But for Living Streets it is all about a shopping street and its visitors.

“On 6 November, Oxford Street was closed to vehicles to allow crowds to gather to watch R&B singer Craig David turn on the Christmas lights,” said Living Streets as part of its campaign.

“The closure to traffic was a great chance to demonstrate the difference in air quality — and in particular levels of deadly nitrogen dioxide (NO2) — after this world-famous and mostly bus-lined street was pedestrianised for just one day.”

Living Streets claimed there was a 31 percent fall in the level of nitrogen dioxide in the air after the street was closed to traffic.

However, according to King’s College London which analysed the air quality it was only a 20 percent reduction.

Graph showing NO2 levles.

There was only a 20 percent reduction in NO2 because there was still motor traffic on the surrounding streets. The EU legal limit is an annual average 40 micrograms per cubic metre of air. Source: London Air.

“Analysis of measurements made by the Oxford Street monitoring site compares NO2 on Sundays in September and October 2016 (red line) to the closure day on the 6th November (blue line) shows a big improvement for the shoppers but the pollution didn’t reach zero. The highest hourly NO2 concentration measured on the closure day was 68 ug/m3 compared to the 88 ug/m3 measured on autumn Sundays. A 20% average reduction was attained on hourly NO2 concentrations due to the closure.”

Kings College commented on the results saying: “There was still traffic on the surrounding roads. This shows that solving London’s air pollution hotspots requires action over a wide area.”

Action over a wide area is exactly what residents in Fitzrovia, Marylebone, Mayfair and Soho are calling for.

Yet Living Streets say little about changing people’s habits of getting taxis to and from Oxford Street. Instead they say that taxis should be provided in the “38 side roads” and “access to buses and taxis a short walk away”.

That’s hardly encouraging active transport like walking.

And if cyclists are banned from the street, as Living Streets suggest, they will be forced to join the stream of London Taxis and the increasing number of private hire cars and delivery vans on the busy parallel routes.

In their defence Living Streets do mention “careful consideration of the impact on the wider West End” and “consideration will need to be given to ensure traffic is not just pushed on to neighbouring streets”.

And there lies the contradiction: a short walk from Oxford Street is where people live and their children go to school. That’s why we oppose the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street.

Public consultation (closes 18 June 2017): Have your say on the transformation of Oxford Street.

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