Pedestrianising Oxford Street is good. But humanising it would be better

How the new Oxford Street might look. Image: TfL.

Every day, some 500,000 people walk along Oxford Street in London – Europe’s busiest shopping street. Now, the city’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, has proposed a plan to divert buses and taxis on to other parallel roads and redesign Oxford Street specifically for pedestrian use.

The scheme is in the process of public consultation, but the idea is to have the western part of the street pedestrianised by December 2018, followed by the eastern section by 2019 and the remaining area around Marble Arch by 2020. So far, so good – but for me, simply making Oxford Street a thoroughfare for pedestrians does not go far enough.

If you take a stroll down Oxford Street today, pedestrians are generally trying to walk along it as fast as they can. Those who pause or dawdle are met with a huff of frustration from the person behind. And then, you see a pair of people standing and chatting. They are creating their own social space, to enjoy a conversation among the bustle of pedestrians. They are being human.

A street designated for pedestrians won’t have any vehicles on it, but it will still look and act like a street. If its design treats pedestrians like traffic, then they will behave like vehicles – rushing from A to B. Yet it is people, not pedestrians, who are the lifeblood of the city.

Human traffic. Image: jepoirrier/Flickr/creative commons.

So, rather than becoming a street for pedestrians, Oxford Street should become a place for people – a place where people want to come and spend time, because it is a great space to pause, linger and simply be.

Design places for people

Renowned people-watchers, such as anthropologist Edward T. Hall, commentator Holly Whyte and more recently architect Jan Gehl, show that people define the spaces in which they feel they can socialise.

Human places also need soft edges: that is, boundaries defined not by walls, but by passable doors. Oxford Street is already full of doors on both sides, and the space between them is large enough to allow for lingering as well as movement. So there is potential to create a place which people can enjoy, rather than endure, as they make their way from one encounter to another.

In his study of personal and social space, Hall suggests that a comfortable distance for people chatting is between about 45cm to 120cm – a theory which myself and other researchers are currently checking in our laboratory. During our tests, we observed how a casual chat, evenly spread between three or four people, descended into a highly restricted, two-person encounter as background noise levels were increased.

So, for people to hear and see their companions in comfort, they need places of the right scale to stand, sit or lean, and a suitably low level of background noise. This requires street furniture and space to chat – as in Havana, where people come together to chat around 18th-century bronze cannons, which have been repurposed as bollards.

Room to play. Image: mfmb_bentley/Flickr/creative commons.

The bollards are a comfortable height for people to lean on and, as a result, the frontier between the pedestrianised city centre and the roads beyond is often full of people chatting and having coffee.

Get rhythm

Another way to make Oxford Street more people-friendly would be to unmask the rhythm of the street. Scholar Henri Lefevbre, in his book Rhythmanalysis, talked a lot about the rhythms of the city – some of these are audible, like the sound of footsteps, while others are visual, such as the vertical columns between shops.

The bustle of many people walking means that the rhythms of footsteps along Oxford Street are rather lost at the moment, making the space sound featureless. But they could be revealed through design or even music. People function at different speeds – from a lingering pause to a purposeful walk – but always with a distinct rhythm. Those rhythms can be captured in the way a place is designed – acoustically as well as visually – by offering people great spaces where they can choose to stop and chat, or simply walk on by.

Having this freedom can stimulate other spontaneous activities – taking a coffee, engaging in conversation, enjoying a performance, looking at art – which could help to generate the varied experience that a wide range of people would enjoy. Make the place work for people, rather than pedestrians, and it will do wonders for society. After all, unexpected encounters with strangers or acquaintances have the power to make people feel happier and more fulfilled.

The ConversationPerhaps the mayor’s scheme should be to humanise Oxford Street, rather than pedestrianise it – to create a place for people, and not just a street for pedestrians.

Nick Tyler is the Chadwick Professor of Civil Engineering at UCL.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.