Oxford Circus Woonerf

A useful word for a good revolution: respect pedestrians.

Kevin Drum links to this snip from London:

As a Californian he doesn´t seem able to place it in context. What you are seeing is a symbolically important victory for a fifty-year campaign in Europe to put cars in their place in towns. Milestones:
– 1963: Colin Buchanan publishes Traffic in Towns for the British government. Report ignored but taken up by Niek de Boer in the Netherlands
– 1969 City of Delft builds first woonerf (pl. woonerven; lit.¨living yard¨), an area with pedestrian priority and vehicles restricted to walking speed
– 1969 – 2008 Hans Monderman develops general shared space approach also covering busier streets, and implements it in Friesland province.

The revolution depends simply on recognising that different sorts of street-users should be treated with equal consideration. As soon as you look at it, the idea that streets belong to cars and buses and trucks, and pedestrians and cyclists should get out of the way, is essentially an Ancien Régime one: the seigneur on a horse is boss. This transforms straightforwardly to the prejudice that inner-city pedestrians on street corners in LA are poor, black, probably engaged in drug-dealing, soliciting, or just hanging about plotting their next delinquency, and should give way to richer whiter drivers.

Perhaps you make a rational utilitarian argument for the current car bias in road management. Help me out. At first sight, at Oxford Circus and many other busy urban intersections, there are almost always more pedestrians than people in vehicles, so pedestrians should get more of the scarce road time. (I know that  the new Circus is technically a shared space but not a true woonerf, but I wanted to advertise this nice new word in the blog title.)

BTW, Westminster City Council – the body responsible for this scary socialist experiment – is Tory. In fact it´s one of the few London boroughs where one-party Tory control is secure enough to allow a nice corruption scandal, in 1986-89. These are more usually found in Labour fiefs.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

7 thoughts on “Oxford Circus Woonerf”

  1. "At first sight, at Oxford Circus and many other busy urban intersections, there are almost always more pedestrians than people in vehicles, so pedestrians should get more of the scarce road time."

    But the cars are moving a lot faster than the pedestrians, so might potentially represent a lot more people passing through those intersections. Or not, depending on how the numbers work out. Either way, it's not the number of people present that's the relevant measure.

  2. The CNN report gives 40,000 pedestrians an hour at Oxford Circus – all going somewhere. This is greater than the possible number of vehicle occupants. This is given by the hostile Daily Mail as 32,000 people an hour – a number which is surely not compatible with the 1,200 vehicles an hour also cited unless half the vehicles are buses.

  3. As I understand it, the traffic really wasn't inconvenienced by expanding the pedestrian space. I have seen similar efforts in other places, most notably, New Haven, where some busy pedestrian crossings are made "four ways" — all the vehicle traffic stops and a pedestrian can go from one corner to any other, including diagonally. This would be really tremendous in high pedestrian zones (Georgetown comes to mind) because traffic that is turning on green might not have to contend with so many pedestrians. It's not necessary everywhere, but I do remember Oxford Circus (and really, every Circus in London) with a shudder — whether as a pedestrian or a driver, it was unsafe.

  4. Brett Bellmore says:

    "But the cars are moving a lot faster than the pedestrians, so might potentially represent a lot more people passing through those intersections. Or not, depending on how the numbers work out. Either way, it’s not the number of people present that’s the relevant measure."

    Brett, in large, congested downtown regions, the average speed a car drops like a (lazy, overfed) rock. I've heard some figures from NYC which are in the single-digits for miles/hour. And given (say) a 40:1 ration of pedestrians to motor vehicles, it'd take very high speeds for the vehicles to make it up.

    Except for busses, of course, but busses and pedestrians form a system; things which make it easier to walk will also be a factor in making bus use easier. In addition, many of those pedestrians were probably also using the Underground, which is an incredibly efficient people-moving system.

  5. The video showed lots of bus traffic, fwiw. But yes, with those numbers the personal auto traffic makes a negligible contribution to the number of people passing through the intersection — and probably a negative one when you account for the congestion.

    I wonder what proportion of those cars actually have origins or destinations anywhere near Oxford Circle, as opposed to the pedestrians.

  6. James

    1. Oxford Street itself is closed to all traffic except buses and taxis (except on Sundays I think). So the East-West crossing at Oxford Circus is already closed to private cars.

    The bus queues on Oxford Street are impressive.

    Regent St (north south) is open to private passenger vehicles.

    2. In Islington, famous for its 'sleeping policemen' (traffic bumps) and for its restricted traffic zones, it was a Tory Local Council (elected by the last gasp of what became the home of New Labour– by the white working class which has now fled Islington for the suburbs, or is marginalized in a Borough that is either investment banker/ lawyer, or Council flatted) that introduced it, the first such traffic plan in London (1969).

  7. Oxford Circus is much more pleasant now for pedestrians. That's one of the busiest shopping areas in the country, if not in Europe: Selfridges is 10 minutes walk away, all of Regent St is right there, John Lewis is 2 minutes away)– it's a major tourist destination too, at least half the voices you hear are not British. It's not actually a major office area (no tall office buildings in the neighanabourhood).

    So the whole thing is very good for economic development.

    The Crown Estate, which owns Regent Street, has been systematically upgrading the street (Hamleys the toy store, Banana Republic etc.) and this is a significant win in that process– making the more valuable top half more accessible and convenient.

    Also it has reduced the safety hazard. the pedestrian congestion was so bad that at times there was a risk of people getting crushed, or jumping the barrier into traffic (saw it many times).

    As it was buses and taxis only East-West (Oxford Street) already, it hasn't made a huge negative difference to passenger vehicle traffic (the average speed is about 10 mph, then, and it still is).

    It's an urban planning win. Westminster Council has come a long way since the (Tory) Lady Porter and her cronies moved families living in public housing into asbestos-lined flats, to increase the Tory majority.

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