The commitment to cleaning up London’s air was one of Khan’s key electoral pledges and, since entering office at City Hall, he has announced a series of measures designed to tackle London’s now epidemic levels of air pollution — described by the Mayor as a ‘public health emergency.’ Around 9,500 Londoners are thought to die prematurely each year due to long-term exposure to air pollution, according to research published by King’s College London in 2015. As a sufferer of adult-onset asthma, Khan believes he is one of the countless number of London residents to have endured the damaging effects of unclean air.
In 2015, the World Health Organisation estimated that the economic cost of deaths and general health issues associated with air pollution in the UK is around £54 billion. As the largest and most densely populated city in the UK and the second most visited city in the world, London’s levels of air pollution are amongst the worst of any city in Europe. In 2014, Oxford Street was named as the single most polluted street in the world, and in January 2015 it exceeded the EU quota for safe annual levels of the deadly pollutant nitrous oxide in just two days. Buses are seen as the main culprit, filling the street throughout the day but travelling at an estimated top speed of only 4.6mph.
The pedestrianisation of Oxford Street is not a new idea. Cars are banned on the street from 7am to 7pm every day except Sundays, and car-free days on Oxford Street and Regent Street have been held in previous years. However, the move to an outright ban on buses and taxis presents a major logistical issue, given the sheer scale of traffic which will have to be redirected to the surrounding streets, many of which are residential. At present, 168 buses travel down the street every hour, with 15,000 passengers picked up or set down along the street each day.
Besides the issue of air quality, the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street will also have a marked impact on the shopping experience it offers visitors. The area is deliberately avoided by many Londoners, with the tightly-packed, slow-moving body of people filling up the pavement a common topic of complaint. Transport writer and author Christian Wolmar has long called for Oxford Street’s pedestrianisation, claiming “it would become a great street once again. An emblematic, beautiful street. Nobody could say that Oxford Street as presently constituted is anything but an urban nightmare.” A spokesperson for Khan said: “London deserves an iconic pedestrianised shopping street, and when work is complete the Mayor believes it will be a truly world beating environment,” with the pedestrianisation making it “a far safer and more pleasant place to visit.” Shoppers seem to agree — when Oxford Street has previously held pedestrian-only days, footfall doubled, with more than a million visitors in one day alone leading to record sales.
However, this increased footfall does present its own problems, potentially replacing bus congestion with pedestrian congestion. Oxford Street station has long struggled with overcrowding — in the 12 months leading up to October 2015, the station was forced to close 113 times to prevent overcrowding on the platforms, an average of once every three days. With the pedestrianisation set to coincide with the opening of the new east to west train line, Crossrail, Oxford Street could potentially see a huge increase in visitors. With rerouted buses making that option of transport less visible to shoppers, there are concerns that the already stretched underground services could be forced to take on those who would ordinarily have travelled by bus away from the street, further exacerbating congestion.
While campaigners celebrate Khan’s initiative, Westminster council is already claiming the plan is unachievable. Deputy leader Cllr Robert Davis said: “While we recognise and respect the Mayor’s aspiration for Oxford Street, our many years of experience as the local authority for the area tells us that the plans described by the deputy mayor for full pedestrianisation are currently unachievable without significant impact on those who live, visit or run a business in the area.” With so many kinks to be worked out, and a battle between local authorities and City Hall brewing, the route towards Oxford Street’s pedestrianisation will no doubt be as stop-and-start as the busses currently trundling down it.