Camden's West End Project – Look Around The Corner

Currently out for consultation are a wide ranging set of plans for the re-imagining of a number of streets in central London. Called the ‘West End Project‘, it has met with strong comment from many sides.

This ‘West End Project’ is all about a comprehensive reimagining of a wide section of London. Crossrail works have led to closures on nearby roads and major changes to traffic patterns in recent years. When Crossrail is complete Tottenham Court Road station (at the south west corner of the project area) will be a busier place than Heathrow. The area is also crossed by what remains the most ambitious cycle route in London, the seven stations route, which links seven major rail terminals in an arc through the north of central London.

The video is a masterpiece of modern urban design promotion. A woman sits down at a table and inks away current designs. Roads become two way with ease. Bollards and parked cars become trees, roads become pavements. In the concept drawings traffic is sparse and those who cycle appear at ease. This is a London without HGVs, between rush hours, on a beautiful sunny day with just the odd bus and lots of happy people enjoying public space. There is a definite desire for change and an improved environment. £26m if not more money will be spent to change this area of London, a sum many other places would be delighted by.

The goal is more people cycling, more people walking, fewer people driving through a destination area. Tottenham Court Road returned to two-way along with Gower Street, changes in many side streets. A reduction in traffic by only permitting buses and cycles to share the road between 8AM and 7PM on Tottenham Court Road. A new north-south protected route for cyclists on Gower Street. In theory many parts of progress, and maybe this package will be good for most people.

But the problem is that like all decisions on main roads, there are inevitably a number of compromises being taken. These compromises mean that the idea this project can encourage more people to cycle seem unlikely at best. To really understand the problem here for cycling I’d encourage you to think back to the Central London Grid, consulted on at the start of this year.

Central London Grid proposal with orange boundary marking Westminster on bottom left and Camden on top right
Central London Grid proposal with orange boundary marking Westminster on bottom left and Camden on top right

It was a disappointing section, though far worse occurred further West and closer to where I live. The grid proposal is notably weak on addressing the issues of cycling on main roads in London. There was no firm commitment then for cycling to be found space on Tottenham Court Road from Camden, or any interest to make space for cycling on Oxford Street or Charing Cross Road from Westminster. At least there were two notes lettered A and B.

A - Routes in Soho are subject to further discussion with Westminster and Camden, in light of Crossrail construction timetable. B - Routes subject to further discussion with Camden.

But now we clearly have an idea of what these routes might look like, how they might be provided, and what to compare them with. And I don’t like what I see. In this, I am not a lone voice. Camden Cyclists on their lengthy page looking at the history of the proposals state in a perhaps too lengthy comment that “we feel that it will not do much to encourage new people to cycle“. Well, if the proposal for a key section of the Central London Grid does that, we are in trouble.

Does Andrew Gilligan as Cycling Commissioner think everything is good here? No, he does not.

In a recent interview with Eddie Nestor on BBC Radio London he was asked about the West End Project (52 seconds in) and stated

“Both Isabel Dedring (London’s deputy mayor for Transport) and I have real concerns that scheme is not good enough for cyclists. We’re worried that it’s going to create another Oxford Street basically. We’ve agreed to let Camden put it out for consultation … I’m worried what you’re going to see is two way buses, quite possibly two way taxis as well and also some crossing traffic in the middle in a space that’s narrower than now. I think you’re going to see a slightly nicer version of Oxford Street.”

Eddie Nestor was slightly incredulous, as the query he’d had was about the changes for drivers, but let’s just address this view. Is what we’re being offered basically a nicer version of Oxford Street?

Well, Oxford Street is currently in the middle of a transformation of its own. By comparison, it’s an even worse scheme, with even less consideration of cyclists, but is there really much meaningful difference? Most of the elements on the updated Oxford Street scheme can already be seen further along and involve streetscape enhancements such as defined loading bays and a central median. Where these have been used elsewhere in London such as the Piccadilly two-way scheme they have not produced better conditions for cycling, and pedestrian benefit has been questionable.

But rather than get tied down into the debate about stones, I’d rather focus on the discussion I found myself most drawn into of the Camden Cycling Campaign’s discussion on cyclescape. This was about flows. Now, the idea with Tottenham Court Road is to restrict this road during the daytime (8AM to 7PM Monday to Saturday) but otherwise open to all traffic. A similar restriction is used on much of Oxford Street, but it doesn’t have any time restriction. There is so much traffic that remains, that you may well not have noticed it. Here are some graphs and figures to explain what that might mean.

So, on Oxford Street at present here’s what count point 46433 -Oxford Street near Wardour Street – shows just counting buses. I’m going to use PCU figures here to help represent the fact that a bus (or HGV) is more of a vehicle to deal with than a car or a motorbike.

PCU Bus only Oxford Street
PCU graph by year for Oxford Street, buses only

It is striking that the bus PCU count has gone up, but some of this is related not only to bus route changes (splitting routes on Oxford Street) but also to the replacement of bendy buses by a greater number of double deckers. Also, this counts coaches. But, anyway, to introduce the concept, I’ve added a red line to this chart to show the 2000PCU level. Inside the London Cycle Campaign, it has been agreed that this is the level of traffic is below which we believe more people might cycle provided a street also has 20mph. Above it we have agreed to aim for protected space or alternate routes. The policy itself is very well explained by Rachel Aldred.

Still, this is all well and nice, but taxis are permitted in Oxford Street, so let’s count cars as well, and powered two wheelers (motorbikes, mopeds).

PCU Bus P2W Cars Oxford Street
PCU count for Oxford Street including buses, cars and powered two wheelers

Oh. Rats. And of course there’s the loading traffic as well, servicing the shops.

PCU All Motor Vehicles Oxford Street
PCU figures for all motor vehicles in Oxford Street

So, we can quite comprehensively say that for East-West cycling provision of protected space for cycling needs to be made on Oxford Street or parallel to it. Which of course the grid proposes, in part effectively re-routing and reusing the Seven Stations project, the most useful (and congested) cycling link in London (I’d say).

parallel to Oxford Street

So, back to the question of the West End Project, over by the large letter B above, where the exclusion of traffic will not be constant as on Oxford Street but during the daytime, Monday to Saturday. Do the flows look similar? Let’s start by just looking at buses. Note that for these I have constructed flows by combining Gower Street and Tottenham Court Road. All buses are expected to be on Tottenham Court Road except for coaches.

PCU Bus Only 2-way TCR
Predicted bus only figure for two-way TCR

This perhaps is a little too pessimistic on buses, it’s plausible it could be under 4000 PCU as many coaches go to the British Museum. However, still far in excess of the magic 2000 PCU figure.

How much traffic is there other than buses that might be seeking to use the road off peak?

PCU Except Buses 2-way TCR
Predicted PCU figure for vehicles except buses that might use TCR off-peak

Loads. Yes, you can see why something akin to the current levels on Oxford Street is plausible, perhaps more likely below 10,000 PCU if you’re optimistic, but this will be a busy road. It will be rather like Oxford Street is now, just around the corner.

PCU All Motor Vehicles Oxford Street
That Oxford Street PCU graph now for comparison

Will it look like this? I doubt it.


So, should the same technique as is being adopted for Oxford Street be used, should we use a parallel road? Well, there are protected cycle lanes proposed for Gower Street, the parallel road. These would use armadillos. This road would have all the taxis on because they would be excluded from using Oxford Street for through traffic. To help us visualise this, Camden are promoting protected space for cycling by showing a taxi park in it.

Taxi in Protected Space

I can well imagine taxi drivers finding the complexity of going in and out of Tottenham Court Road too much and using Gower Street’s ‘protected’ lanes as a convenient place to drop off passengers. Now, that could be policed, or we can perhaps rethink the design. (yes, I favour the latter option). Where do we find space for full on protected space for cycling, as we might find in the Netherlands? Can we balance the needs of pedestrians, bus passengers and people on bikes? Are we going there in one step or several? If we aren’t doing it today with £26m, when does it happen? There needs to be a clear plan.

A not particularly fussed woman in Amsterdam cycles past some coaches with tourists.
A not particularly fussed woman in Amsterdam cycles past some coaches with tourists.

It does appear that Camden’s officers have spent time with Camden Cycling Campaign discussing how to deliver genuine protected space on Tottenham Court Road. But it also appears that those discussions have been compromised. In places Tottenham Court Road is narrow, but in others it is wide. The narrow sections are being used to stop providing space even on the wider sections, this seems rather too cautious.

I would write another 1500 words now, but rather I think you should look to the posts of others who’ve offered solutions. David Arditti thinks this is a good case for not restoring two-way traffic to Tottenham Court Road. Rachel Aldred favours something more imaginative in Gower Street. Mark Treasure thinks we should think of width more widely (between Gower Street and Tottenham Court Road). Cyclists in the City and iBikeLondon were rather more mixed, seeing advantages in the proposals and the Movement For Liveable London perhaps have been the most supportive. It is good to see detailed discussion on options, though it is also disappointing that the consultation doesn’t really engage with the breadth of options even a few, voluntary, and imaginative cycle bloggers can come up with. At the Hackney Conference, it was notable that officers describing the Kingston mini-holland spoke of short narrower sections of cycle path in preference to avoiding provision altogether.

Personally, I am keen that we find a better solution to this knot we seem to be tied up in. London already has a lot of competing uses of road space, and we need to find some more imaginative ways of bringing over continental design rather than just removing gyratories, narrowing roads and making new squares. That’s surely the easy stuff. The more complex and rewarding steps come when we integrate new modes such as cycling that have otherwise been at the margins.

I’ll end with my final punchline – what on earth happens when the idea of building trams in central London gets traction again? And would we marginalise the idea of protected space for cycling the same way if it does?

There’s been some comment about how we debate these changes, but rather try and police tone (some of which I think is unnecessary), I’ll end with a song.

Who knows if this is all there is
Come the morning we get to start anew
But we must tread wisely, till our days are done
Look around the corner, tell me what do you see?

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