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The benefits and challenges of pedestrianizing Central London

Around the world, people are expressing the desire to live in a ‘walkable city’. Let’s look at some of the challenges of pedestrianizing inner-city streets, with London as an example, as well as some of the challenges to doing so.

Whether or not a city is walkable greatly impacts the quality of life of those who live there.

While many cities in the US are lagging behind on this feature, those in Europe generally score higher on ‘walkability’ which is best described by areas designed to ‘invite people to get around on foot, not because they have to but because they will feel like they are missing out if they don’t. The physical infrastructure [has] characteristics that make people not just realise walking is possible but also that it is preferable.’

Despite its huge size, walking in London is rather easy. Most streets have decent-width pavements on either side of them, with crossings available every hundred meters or so. Still, the UK’s capital was ranked as having the worst traffic in the world for the second year running, which is mind-blowing when 3.15 million people make use of the London Underground daily.

The rest of London’s residents and visitors rely on cars and other vehicles which clog up our streets, pollute the air, and make life as a pedestrian difficult, if not dangerous. Although the ULEZ was recently introduced to deal with car congestion and improve local air quality, it has been met with a lot of criticism.

Though fees set out by the new ULEZ policy are causing a stir, there are a couple of areas that many Londoners would agree should be completely pedestrianised. Common suggestions are car bans on major shopping streets as well as the bustling neighbourhood of Soho.

In fact, this already happened and it worked pretty well!

During the summer of 2020, cars were disallowed from driving through Soho to allow for al fresco seating as restaurants and bars were struggling to stay afloat amid forced pandemic closures.

But by 2021, cars had returned, and our beloved outdoor dining completely disappeared. The scheme that helped 90 percent of restaurants in the area bounce back from months of being shut was over.

Not long after, petitions to pedestrianize Soho once again gained traction. Some of them have been running since early 2010 – though none have ever been met with official plans by the government.

There are various arguments for and against this pedestrianizing project, so let’s look at the challenges before exploring potential benefits.

Map of Soho in London

Challenges to pedestrianizing Central London

Let’s start with the obvious.

Soho, along with its neighbouring Covent Garden, has the highest concentration of restaurants in Central London. This means that food vendors need to be able to drive their trucks through these neighbourhoods, going door to door to deliver produce.

Hundreds of retail stores and corner shops are condensed in this small area, too. Delivery trucks rely on these roads to drop off new stock on a weekly or even daily basis in order to meet the demand.

There is so much activity happening in this small neighbourhood that Soho is generating a lot of waste. Regular bin collection is absolutely essential in order to keep these streets turning into a wasteland.

Finally, a key concern lies in the potential for the overspill of traffic onto surrounding streets, which could cause major road congestion.

Resident concerns over traffic are what caused Westminster Council to cancel London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s plans to pedestrianize all 1.2 miles of Oxford Street for good. This is despite the fact that the vast majority of residents supported the plan overall.

In light of recognising these necessary services, perhaps a total car ban isn’t the right fit.

Instead, allowing for only business and council-owned vehicles to pass through during certain hours of the day would be a better solution. These services could be exclusively carried out by smaller, electric-powered vehicles such as cargo bikes – which are already deployed in many vibrant areas of London.

Though it would require some thorough planning initially, these modifications would help prioritise pedestrians during the majority of the day, while allowing for business and essential services to continue as usual.

Benefits of pedestrianisation

The higher the walkability score, the more visitors are likely to flock to the area.

Studies carried out in cities around the world have shown show that when a street is pedestrianised, the area sees a minimum of 30 percent more footfall thanks to new shoppers and diners visiting to enjoy the area.

This boost in footfall was recorded on London’s Carnaby Street when it was pedestrianised in 1973. The street continues to be popular, car-free zone to this day – lined with retail stores, cafes, restaurants, and bars.

It’s also worth mentioning the numerous health and safety benefits reaped from pedestrianizing city streets. These include reducing the risk of road accidents and exposure to vehicular pollution.

Air quality is significantly impacted by taking cars off the road. This was proven by a study at King’s College London, which revealed that levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) more than halved in central London during the first major lockdown in 2020.

Finally, turning vibrant neighbourhoods into car-free zones is known to boost a sense of local community.

With more people on foot instead of cars, social interaction is encouraged. The incorporation of green spaces, fountains, and benches allows people to congregate, fostering a sense of community and belonging, which are both essential for mental health and overall well-being.

Current plans to get us closer to this utopia involve the London Mayor’s goal to convert London to a minimum of 50 percent green space. It’s rumoured that Parliament Square could be completely pedestrianised, while Oxford Street will get a £120 million makeover to add more green spaces and seating areas.

These changes may be slow to emerge for now, but even small changes have potential to make a big impact. In the meantime, you can bet that the majority of Londoners will continue to advocate for pedestrianized streets in the future.