If there’s one thing that’s constant in London, apart from the ravens at The Tower and that annoying guy with the bagpipes on Westminster Bridge, it’s Oxford Street. An afternoon spent shopping on the famous thoroughfare has, for as long as anyone can remember, been a thoroughly miserable experience.

We’re all familiar with the drill, wedge yourself into the smelliest armpit in Christendom and allow yourself to be pin-balled the mile or so from Marble Arch to Tottenham Court Road. It’s over-crowded, depressing and completely lethal with busses and taxis on a mission to earn a call-out from the air ambulance. The shops are pretty bland too, lacklustre high street fare that you can find anywhere in Britain interspersed with touristy tat shops flogging made in China Big Ben snow globes for fifty quid a pop. Well not any more, there are big changes ahead.

The epicentre of the experience, the area immediately around Oxford Circus, is due for a huge makeover. And it looks rather good.

The brand new proposals, revealed this morning by The Crown Estate and Westminster council, will render the entire stretch from John Prince’s Street, a couple of streets to the west of Oxford Circus and on to Great Portland Street, a couple of streets to the east of Oxford Circus, closed to buses and taxis.

And it looks rather good...

The plans aren’t as bold as they might’ve been, for a start it’s a relatively short stretch of street that’s being tackled here, which rather prompts the question why didn’t the plans extend this to Bond Street tube station? But it’s still significant and will look and feel very different.

It’s notable that the north and south traffic up and down Regent’s Street will continue to provide a formidable gauntlet to shoppers aiming to get across the new piazza’d Oxford Circus. But this traffic will be ‘calmed’ and shoppers will be given longer at the lights. Given pedestrians will be coming at the junction from all angles now, not just four street corners, how this works in practice will be interesting to behold.

The whole shebang will launch in November, in time for Christmas shopping...

Existing traffic flowing down Oxford Street will be re-routed down the slightly more residential streets of Marylebone, presumably much to their delight.

And the whole shebang will launch in November, in time for Christmas shopping, with an international design competition thrown together by the Royal Institute of British Architects this summer to make sure it’s as pretty as possible.

A cross-section of the Oxford Circus Elizabeth Line tube station...

There is something of an urgency, too, as the new Elizabeth Line is expected to finally open in 2022 and should bring tens of millions of visitors into the West End. Council bosses are clearly banking on the assumption that retail will bounce back and that shoppers lost to local high streets during covid will want to flock back.

The new Elizabeth Line is expected to finally open in 2022 and should bring tens of millions of visitors into the West End...

In a statement, Westminster council’s leader, Rachael Robathan, said: “There is an urgent need to tackle pedestrian congestion and safety, poor air quality and noise. The serious congestion of Oxford Circus – of people and of traffic – is unsustainable and demands action. In the aftermath of the pandemic, and with the arrival of the Elizabeth Line, there is an overwhelming need and a compelling opportunity to build back better.

“We hope the creation of these pedestrian-only piazzas at Oxford Circus will not only improve safety, security, accessibility and but create an iconic destination at the heart of London.”

It’s an innovative approach to pro-pedestrian traffic calming in the area and part of a £150m plan to bring shoppers back to the West End. In sharp contrast with mayor Sadiq Khan’s varied but flawed efforts to simply make driving your delivery van or ambulance as difficult as possible, this project puts actually pedestrians first while providing viable solutions for necessary traffic, and it’s likely to be very popular.

The new piazzas join the bizarre Marble Arch Mound as one of the projects hitting central London in the next few months...

The new piazzas join the bizarre Marble Arch Mound as one of the projects hitting central London in the next few months to make being in the area, eating out and shopping, a little more tolerable.

Which can only be a good thing.


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