Taxis lead the campaign against a traffic ban in Oxford Street: There is scant support for pedestrianising the busiest shopping road in London, despite congestion which cost six lives last year. Christian Wolmar reports

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The Independent Online
IT IS NOT the IRA bombers who pose the greatest threat to shoppers in Oxford Street at Christmas time. The sheer weight of the number of shoppers forces those in a hurry off the pavement and into the street which, though closed to normal traffic, still has some 500 taxis and 125 buses going along it every hour in each direction at peak times.

The resulting carnage is considerable. Last year, 250 people were hit by vehicles and six died. Those returning to the Tube stations laden with shopping will have risked their lungs, given the noxious atmosphere caused by the idling engines of traffic stuck in the seamless jam. This week the traffic was so heavy that taking a bus was futile because walking was quicker.

Despite the chaos, there is little pressure for the full pedestrianisation of the road. The Oxford Street Association, which represents retailers, fears that pedestrianisation would deter as many customers as it would encourage. Its director, Bill Melly, said: 'It would be nice to pedestrianise Oxford Street but it's not realistic. It's a main east-west thoroughfare for London and there would be nowhere for the traffic to go.' He said that despite the recession, shoppers were still flocking there: 'We have a turnover of pounds 4bn per year, so it can't be that bad. When we have done surveys, we have found that people like shopping there.'

Conservative-run Westminster City Council is equally tentative. A long debate in the mid-1980s, which at one time looked like resulting in a complete pedestrianisation scheme, ended with nothing being done. A series of grandiose schemes, including an elevated monorail, and more modest ones such as limited pedestrianisation, were rejected. Taxi drivers were at the forefront of the battle and resist any suggestion that they might be banned from the street. 'We are part of the transport infrastructure and shoppers there must have the opportunity to take a cab. If we couldn't use Oxford Street, we would have to use lengthy detours, which would cost our customers a lot of money,' said Stuart Pessok, the managing editor of Taxi.

Alex Segal, chairman of the council's planning and development committee, was adamant that pedestrianisation was impractical: 'It would be very nice but once you look carefully at the situation, you find it is impossible. There's no alternative route.' Now, after six years of inaction, the council is finally undertaking modest improvements on a 180-metre (590ft) section of the street, near Marble Arch. Work is due to start in January on the plan to widen the pavement by narrowing the width of the road, plant trees and remove the ugly concrete tree tubs. The central drainage channel in the pavement, which dates from the previous improvement in 1976 and which is a major hazard for walkers, will be removed by repaving. The taxi drivers are even resisting this limited plan. Mr Pessok said: 'If a taxi stops to pick up or set down, nothing will be able to get past. It will slow the traffic down.'

If this pilot scheme is successful, the council will carry out similar work on the whole length, at a cost of pounds 8m- pounds 10m. However, although Westminster council is probably the most affluent local authority in Britain, it is refusing to do the work unless it can find part of the costs, around 17 per cent, from the private sector, and the Oxford Street Association is balking at the cost. The council's lack of imagination could prove fatal to the street, according to opposition councillors, the only group pressing for pedestrianisation. Hugh Garside, a Labour councillor on the planning committee, said: 'The street is going downhill. When I first came to London 30 years ago, people talked about Oxford Street and meant the whole of it. Now they just mean the bit between Marble Arch and Oxford Circus, because there's very few nice shops in the rest.'

He recognises that there are problems about re-routing the buses and taxis, but said: 'Those against pedestrianisation always talk about the old and the frail who wouldn't be able to shop there. What they don't seem to realise is that the old and the frail can barely move along the pavements without being barged into by other shoppers. There just isn't enough space on the pavements.'

He suggests that buses could be replaced by a people-mover like those in theme parks to take people along the street. 'Unless they are prepared to spend some money on it and make it a much better place to shop, Oxford Street will decline. It's the same short-sighted attitude that has wrecked the British economy.'

(Photograph omitted)

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