By the time the pandemic hit the UK in early 2020, initiatives to pedestrianise popular areas in London were already in motion. Mayor Sadiq Khan’s plan to transform all 1.2 miles of Oxford Street into a vehicle-free zone had been gaining traction as early as 2017.
His aim was to cultivate a “safer, healthier and better environment” as part of Khan’s and Transport for London’s (TfL’s) Liveable Neighbourhoods programme. This funds transformational projects to reduce car use and improve London’s environment.
But in what Khan deemed a betrayal, Westminster City Council confirmed the initiative to pedestrianise Oxford Street had been “taken off the table for good” due to residents’ fear of traffic spilling into surrounding streets. This was despite over half of the responses from the public consultation either supporting the project outright or backing the plans with “some concerns about certain elements”.
Fast forward to Super Saturday on 4 July 2020, the summer following the first Covid-19 wave in London where many commercial outlets reopened. While Oxford Street remained a through-route for working transport, other areas of the city became cordoned off from traffic to prioritise pedestrians. This was to remove strains in pavement sharing while some requirements of social distancing remained in place. The idea also aimed to reduce traffic and air pollution, while helping businesses to revive.
Reclaiming car-dominated spaces for pedestrians gleaned a multitude of benefits and should be a legacy of the pandemic. But many streets have been returned to motorists since the easing of Covid-19 restrictions. As Londoners remember pedestrianised streets, can they imagine a future of a walkable London that has hitherto been dominated by vehicles, with cleaner air and community-focused streets?
Supporting local businesses and al fresco Soho
During the pandemic, pedestrianising became a way to regenerate the beleaguered hospitality sector. Restaurants and bars could move their seating outside and encourage more footfall and a safer al fresco dining experience over the summers between lockdowns.
A campaign to pedestrianise 17 streets in Soho – including Greek Street, Old Compton Street, Frith Street and Dean Street – found success after winning more than 6,500 signatures in support. Among the signatories were Bill Nighy, Orlando Bloom and numerous restaurants and bars, which jumped at the opportunity to recover business and replenish community in the summer months, with the opportunity for patrons to clink cocktails and browse menus on Old Compton Street as part of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme.
The pandemic hugely impacted the hospitality sector. Almost 10,000 licensed premises –restaurants, pubs and cafés – closed in 2020 across the UK. This impacted London significantly, given that 18% of UK food and accommodation businesses and the highest proportion of jobs in the UK’s hospitality sector are found in the capital.
A report by LivingStreets.org concluded that pedestrianisation can boost footfall and sales by up to 30%. According to Soho Estates, the pedestrianisation of Soho proved to be successful in helping bars and restaurants recover. 90% of the area’s hospitality businesses reopened after fears the area would struggle to see many of its venues reopen following the pandemic lockdowns.
Pedestrianised areas promoting public health and sustainability
Pedestrianised areas provided more space for physical distancing, allowing people to walk, exercise and enjoy outdoor activities safely. With ongoing concerns about respiratory illnesses, maintaining pedestrianised zones contributed to improved public health by reducing the risk of transference as well as exposure to vehicular pollution.
Scientists from King’s College London revealed that levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) more than halved in parts of central London during the first lockdown in 2020. This notable reduction in pollution at the time, alongside the need to maintain social distancing, triggered conversations about whether to pedestrianise London for good in efforts to clean up the city’s air.
By prioritising pedestrians, London has already made progress incentivising alternative modes of transportation such as cycling and walking, reducing reliance on cars and contributing to a greener city, but there is a strong need to greatly consider the requirements of local residents and customers, to ensure accessibility, redirect traffic and cater to the needs of local businesses appropriately.
Nurturing and rebuilding communities
Pedestrianised areas can also act as catalysts for social interaction, fostering a sense of community and belonging. By providing leisure spaces for people to meet, socialise and engage in cultural activities, these areas can revitalise neighbourhoods, enhance mental well-being, and strengthen social connections, especially after several periods of social isolation the city experienced in 2020–22.
Peckham’s bustling Rye Lane, for example, a culturally diverse street for residents and local businesses in south London, saw itself become vehicle-free on 6 July 2020, with the main road split by street markings into four lanes exclusively for cyclists and pedestrians, promoting more sustainable methods of travel.
This also invited street vendors and high street visitors to interact and engage in the area without the disturbance and danger of traffic. With mixed feelings from locals about the reopening of Rye Lane to motorists, Southwark council has since made the popular street accessible for public transport and trading, as a permanently pedestrianised Rye Lane remains fiercely debated.
In central London, Westminster City Council invested £22m in permanently pedestrianising areas at Strand and Aldwych, which links together some of London’s most important cultural and educational centres, from theatres to universities, with the aim of creating a new social area for visitors to institutions like King’s College London and London School of Economics.
There are new pedestrian and cycle zones, as well as seating and resting areas with trees for shade, which the council says make the busy thoroughfare “a place to relax for the first time in history”. The site also now hosts more green space, demonstrating environmental benefits too, that contribute towards cooling the city in hot summers.
A greener, walkable, pedestrianised London
The pandemic offered a glimpse of the transformative potential that pedestrianised areas hold for London. By permanently reclaiming car-dominated spaces for pedestrians, the city can prioritise public health, support local businesses, improve air quality, encourage sustainable transport and enhance community engagement.
As we build a more resilient and sustainable future post-pandemic, reviving pedestrianised areas is a top priority of the mayor’s urban planning efforts. With Khan looking to make 50% of London open park space by 2050, there is an opportunity to reimagine the streets of London, to create vibrant, walkable, and inclusive spaces that contribute to the well-being and quality of life for all Londoners, helping to shape a greener, healthier, and more people-centric capital city.