Sadiq Khan promised during his campaign to pedestrianize Oxford Street. That would mean no buses or taxis (black cabs, which is to say traditional London taxis, not mini-cabs or Uber), which are the vehicles allowed there now.
I’ve been ambivalent about this plan because there are a lot of buses on Oxford Street and it’s not clear how they could be re-routed, yet a pedestrianized Oxford Street would be a terrific improvement for central London.
In November, the first installment of the plan was unveiled in a Transport for London (TFL) consultation. TFL proposed changes to 17 of the bus routes that now use Oxford Street, perhaps this year. They calculate that these changes will require, every weekday, 17,200 riders who now ride through would need to change buses – that is if, with that added inconvenience and delay, those people keep riding buses at all. That represents a serious deterioration in bus service, but it’s not close to taking all the vehicles off Oxford Street, and actual pedestrianization remains a few years off.
One might say, well, baby steps. Yes, you’ve got to start somewhere, but why here? The fact is that a large share of the motor vehicles on Oxford Street are black cabs. Many of these taxis are dead-heading, no passenger, to the City or a train station. As buses thin out on Oxford Street, they are simply replaced by taxis – the road becomes a magnet for ever more taxis, a grand rat run through the West End. And the November consultation is all about reducing the number of buses, saying nothing about taxis.
TFL does provide a rationale for the bus changes. The principal rationale – a step toward pedestrianization – is clear. Beyond that, the case for making these changes in bus service now is feeble. We are told that bus ridership is down in Central London, because the Tube has become so much more efficient. Many observers would suggest that central London bus ridership is down for a different reason – namely, that buses move so slowly in the heavy traffic, the traffic having been swollen by growing numbers of taxis (both black cabs and ‘private hire vehicles’, including Uber), while routes are disrupted by numerous big construction projects. Taking the buses off of Oxford Street and putting them onto other roads that are already congested with private motor traffic, is only going to make that worse.
TFL also tells us that the buses won’t be needed so much when Crossrail opens. But, while Crossrail will relieve pressure on tube lines such as the Central and the Bakerloo, most of the bus lines involved go off in different directions, and are complements to Crossrail rather than subsitutes: Crossrail will bring large numbers of passengers to Oxford Street at Bond Street and at Tottenham Court Road, and many of these will then continue to other locations, sometimes by bus (or is TFL just planning huge taxi ranks at those new stations)? The meme that the buses won’t be needed because Crossrail seems more like a wet dream of certain Oxford Street retailers, warmed by the idea of replacing lower-income bus passengers with big-spending Crossrail passengers.
And, even if the Crossrail-replaces-buses story did, ultimately, make sense, it doesn’t make any sense at all now, since Crossrail won’t open until at least 2020, and the bus cuts are proposed to begin this year.
In short, except for the ultimate goal of removing all motor traffic from Oxford Street, nothing in the rationale accompanying the consultation makes sense. The most charitable interpretation I could give TFL’s rationale is that it is intended to make the proposals look so stupid that nobody will support them.
But if we do take the proposal TFL put out for consultation at face value, as a political document it is a puzzle. Not a puzzle that the black cab lobby would support it; indeed, they will put up a big fuss if they aren’t last off of Oxford Street – look at their civil disobedience in the face of the City of London’s laudable, and long overdue, experiment with buses-and-bikes-only at Bank. What really scares the cabbies about Bank is that buses will be allowed there and taxis won’t, which could be the beginning of the end of taxis’ odd privilege of travelling in bus lanes. Taking taxis off of Oxford Street first, before buses, would be an even bigger step in that direction, and would frighten the black cab industry even more.
Nor is it a puzzle that City Hall and TFL would want to keep the black cab lobby on side. But there have to be limits – leaders have to know when to tell their supporters they’re asking for too much. And surely – surely – to ask 17,200 bus riders every day to take longer, interrupted bus rides as a step toward pedestrianization, but then to flood the street with taxis for three years or so before pedestrians are allowed in – surely that would be beyond the limit of anything reasonable? Surely no politician or transport planner would insult the bus-riding and pedestrian (and, simply, air-breathing) publics with such nonsense?
I hope not. As I say, the consultation is silent on what happens to cabs. However, TFL (and, by extension, the mayor, who chairs TFL) does do some amazing things for cabs. Not only does TFL grant black cabs bus lane privileges on TFL-controlled roads, but it apparently pressures councils to extend that privilege on council-controlled roads as well. The planned cycle route from Swiss Cottage to the West End, via Regents Park, received overwhelming public support in the official consultation, but TFL won’t commit to the key measure of stopping motor traffic through the park at peak times – a central grievance of the taxi drivers opposing the plan. Rat-runs through parks; one-passenger and zero-passenger taxis crowding lanes otherwise reserved for buses carrying as many as 80 passengers; exemption from the congestion charge: TFL and the mayor are willing to do some extraordinary things for taxis, so why not let them fill up Oxford Street while the buses are withdrawn, until last call sometime in 2020?
The puzzle, still, is why. When closing the Regents Park gates was kicked into the long grass, some cycling campaigners argued about whether Khan is so beholden politically to the black cab industry that he has no choice, or simply has as a lawyer and politician in London spent his adult life in cabs and sees the world from that perspective.
I still think, as with the bus services at Bruce Grove in Tottenham, that the problem is more simply lack of grip. These are complicated decisions with a lot of parties involved, and there seems to be either a lack of vision and determination at the top, or a failure at the top to exercise control over the process. I cannot believe that Sadiq Khan actually wants to prioritize the rights of black cabs to run everywhere, over the needs of pedestrianization, clean air, quiet parks, bus services, and safe space for cycling – any more than I can believe that he and the other leaders of TFL actually want to degrade bus service in order to achieve some trivial increases in footpath space, as at Bruce Grove.