The square route of Norman Foster

A walker's promenade in the heart of London has been approved by Westminster council, writes Mark Rowe
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The Independent Online
THE DREAM of a promenade through the heart of London camecloser to realisation last week when plans to pedestrianise much of Trafalgar Square, Whitehall and Parliament Square were approved by Westminster City Council.

The pounds 30m scheme is designed by Foster and Partners, headed by Sir Norman Foster, as part of the World Squares project. It was given further support last month by a traffic study which suggested that fears of massive congestion around the scheme had been exaggerated.

Under the World Squares proposal, the north side of Trafalgar Square between Nelson's Column and the National Gallery and the south side of Parliament Square by Westminster Abbey will be pedestrianised and new walking routes created amid Whitehall's most impressive buildings.

A pedestrian route through the circular courtyard of the Edwardian Treasury building, on through the courtyard of the Foreign Office, across Downing Street and into Horse Guards Parade is also planned, along with the widening of the pavements in Horseguards Avenue and an improved setting for the Cenotaph.

Many residents are worried that cars unable to use the area will add to existing congestion on adjacent thoroughfares. The most pessimistic view predicts queues tailing back on to the A40, one of the main arteries west of London.

Supporters of the scheme have seized upon a study by University College London which rejects transport planners' traditional computer models suggesting cars displaced from the centre will just end up elsewhere.

The study, commissioned by London Transport and the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, argues that up to one in five journeys "evaporates" when a road is closed off. Furthermore, at least one in five cars has no need to be in Trafalgar or Parliament Square: drivers just use the area as a short cut and could skirt round it if necessary.

The researchers looked at 60 traffic systems around the world where roads had been closed to cars, including the temporary traffic ban on Tower Bridge in 1994 and the closure of Hammersmith Bridge a year ago to all but buses and cyclists. The Tower Bridge closure led to a permanent reduction in the number of cars using it: three years later, the traffic has still not returned to its original level. Similarly, it is estimated that 21 per cent of drivers who had used Hammersmith Bridge no longer drive to work.

Michael Gwiliam, director of the Civic Trust, a charity that aims to improve the quality of urban areas, said the survey should give impetus to the World Squares plan: "It can work. Huge problems were predicted when the 'ring of steel' went up around the City of London. But it was not nearly as bad as was predicted. When you put in a fairly restrictive measure you don't get the displacement of traffic you'd expect. We're not saying do it all at once. Introduce it bit by bit and see how it goes."

The idea was endorsed by Ben Plowden, director of the Pedestrians Association. "This study has extremely important implications. One of the chief anxieties of councillors in Westminster is that the proposals could lead to increased congestion in the borough and elsewhere in London. This study suggests those fears may not be borne out. In the real world traffic appears to evaporate.

"If we can't return this great big open space to a more human use then we won't be able to do it anywhere. This has got to be the place where we start looking at the balance between people and the car. Pedestrians are treated as though they are at the bottom of the food chain. They have been ignored and that has to change. The models used by engineers to suggest traffic moves somewhere else, like a squeezed toothpaste tube, are overly negative and conservative."

Westminster Council's environment and planning committee has endorsed the World Squares scheme but has cautioned against throwing out years of traditional research on traffic behaviour: it acknowledges that wider measures for reducing traffic in central London are essential for the plan to be successful.

If a master plan is approved by the council in June some of the changes could be in place by 2000.