This Holiday Season London’s Streets Are “Absolutely Jammed”

London retailers enjoyed a £100 million spending spree as Oxford, Bond and Regents Streets
were closed to motor vehicle traffic for a day

As New York City government issues its usual series of futile Holiday Season "Gridlock Alerts" (Warning to people stuck in traffic: You are stuck in traffic) while Manhattan shoppers have the life squeezed out of them on crowded sidewalks amidst honking, spewing, pissed off motorists, take a look at how London is handling the holiday crush.

Mayor Ken Livingstone declared Saturday, December 2 "Very Important Pedestrian Day," completely closing three of the city’s most famous shopping strips, Oxford, Bond and Regent’s Streets to automobile traffic from 10:30am to 8pm. Carol singers, artists, jugglers and other performers provided entertainment, and the day finished off with a massive fireworks display. As per the BBC:

"What it will create for the shoppers is a fantastic
freedom to move," said Jace Tyrell, from the New West End Company —
which has organised the event.
"Shoppers will be able to take over the streets and have
a more festive fun atmosphere to enjoy Christmas shopping in the West

News reports say that up to a million people descended on the car-free streets to take part in what amounted to a £100 spending orgy (Said one retailer: "The increase in wealthy Russian, Chinese and Indian shoppers around Bond Street has been phenomenal").

As New York City’s mayor struggles to explain to New Yorkers how less congested streets will make their lives better, Mayor Livingstone clearly framed the car-free event as a piece of his Administration’s broader environmental, quality of life and economic development agenda. The Evening Standard reported

Mayor Ken Livingstone, who opened the event, said: "It has become a
major event in London’s calendar in the run-up to Christmas [and] shows
us all what the West End will be like in 2013 with traffic removed and
the streets turned over to the pedestrian." The success of the event
has strengthened the view of many analysts that the West End is heading
for a record Christmas even if high streets elsewhere in Britain are
experiencing lacklustre sales.

Mr Tyrrell said: "There
were no problems with the roads closures, everything went really


Columbia University professor and Streetsblog reader Steve Hammer happened to be in London during the event. Here is his report:

—–Original Message—–

From: Steve Hammer
Sent: Saturday, December 01, 2007 7:55 AM

To: Aaron Naparstek

Subject: VIP Day — London


Am currently in London. Wandered over to Oxford Street this morning, the main shopping street in Central London.

Oxford Street (and Regent Street) are both closed to vehicles as part of "Very Important Pedestrian" (VIP) Day in London. The Greater London Authority has set up exhibitions on bicycling around London, Transport for London services, and a new program encouraging parents to walk their children to school rather than driving them.

Mayor Ken Livingstone was speaking on a stage at Oxford Circus, talking about why the GLA had sponsored VIP day, and their long term vision for the central shopping district — no more cars on Oxford Street, only dedicated bus lanes — and more room for pedestrians. Eventually they will have a tram operating along the street instead of the buses.

These changes will be implemented over a 10 year period.


Steve Hammer
Director, Urban Energy Program
Columbia University


I almost forgot to mention… The streets are absolutely jammed.

Photos: Evening Standard

26 thoughts on This Holiday Season London’s Streets Are “Absolutely Jammed”

  1. brilliant. london’s mayor (and our own) are preaching to the converted by stressing the environmental and health benefits of pedestrianized streets… far more “bang for the buck” to be had in discussing how beneficial they are for business!

    i for one do anything possible to avoid major shopping areas in manhattan during the holidays, but if they looked like this i’d make a point of going!

  2. “As New York City’s mayor struggles to explain to New Yorkers how less congested streets will make their lives better…”

    Not true. Few people disagree with the idea that less congested streets will make their lives better. That’s not the issue. The issue is how we’re going to get there.

  3. Dear Mayor Bloomberg,

    Please do something like this.

    Best regards,
    A majority of New York City’s population

  4. The question is always whether the businesses will lose for from the lack of drivers than they gain from the increase in pedestrians.

    Yes, that’s it, and it depends on how many people would choose to drive to the shopping area vs. walk or take transit under both arrangements. In Tulsa, clearly not many people did either when it was a pedestrian street.

    London has a critical mass of people who simply do not own cars and would walk, take transit or maybe hop in a cab. It also has a significant population who own cars, but wouldn’t drive to Oxford Street anyway. Removing access to private vehicles is not going to alienate them, so any business that can survive on those people alone is going to do fine. Any drivers who switch to transit or walking are additional profit.

    In this way, New York is very much like London.

  5. I avoid Herald Square and Times Square at all costs during the holidays. It is simply too miserably crowded on the sidewalks.

    I would love to the London experience written up in the New York dailies.

  6. I have to say, I don’t see the value in having a calm pedestrian experience without having to deal with cars, and then getting crushed by other shoppers once you’re inside a store.

    Of course, that assumes you’ll have a calm pedestrian experience. Back in 2000 I visited the Portobello Road flea market, and some parts were very crowded and not calm at all. This was in April, nowhere near the Christmas shopping season.

  7. I have to say, I don’t see the value in having a calm pedestrian experience without having to deal with cars, and then getting crushed by other shoppers once you’re inside a store.

    Now is when one might make a comment about consumerism, and bring up Reverend Billy, and secretly wish that we had neither too many cars nor the consumer frenzy of Christmas, but I’ll settle for improving liveable streets first and then focusing on ratcheting down consumption.

  8. What is fascinating about this and the Herald Square comment is that even if it (and Times Square) were closed, I don’t know that I would go there because they would still be terribly crowded — which speaks volumes to relative density and priorities in the city.

    With proper regional transit and increased hotel capacity, large swathes of Manhattan could be declared car free zones and get more crowded. When is someone going to attack Brodsky as an economic impediment?

  9. miss r: “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded?” Might I humbly suggest that you may not be the target audience for a Herald Square carfree initiative?

    Speaking for myself, I don’t go to New Year’s Eve celebrations in Times Square because I don’t want to stand in a herd for three hours, spend five minutes watching the ball drop, and then another hour trying to make my way (on foot, natch) to the subway to get away. Similar emotions come to mind seeing the photograph at the top of this post.

  10. I’m usually in midtown for Black Friday and I have recently wondered what would happen if they just took a lane or two out of Fifth Avenue for the really busy days of the Christmas season and made them available for pedestrian overflow.

    It never dawned on me to imagine the whole street for people.

    For thinking small, I get no holiday gifts this year.

  11. This post, and especially the picture at top, made my day. All those happy people in car-free streets! Cheered me right up! I’m one of those people who gets a charge out of high urban pedestrian densities. I even enjoy shopping at Fairway on weekend afternoons.

  12. I lived in a French city called Tours several years ago. They closed down the main drag to traffic on the Sunday before Christmas, and opened up all the stores. It was absolutely mobbed, but in a good way. It was one of the best days I spent in France! People flocked in, by train of course, from all over the region to shop and drink wine.

  13. Larry in #5:

    With all due respect and I have nothing against you Larry but I’m getting pretty sick and tired of people using the argument that “since the pedestrians malls of the 1970’s failed, modern versions they will fail again.” There is one major fault with this argument however that people always forget about.

    In the 1970’s nobody wanted to go downtown. Abandonment of the cities was still in full swing. The pedestrian malls of the 1970’s were used as a last ditch effort to get people back downtown. They failed because the social forces pushing people out of the cities were just too strong for a simple small landscape project to overcome. Plus the shopping centers and indoor malls were all the rage back then.

    Today things are vastly different. People want to be in the cities. New York City is the premier example of this in the US. It’s also hip and fashionable today to live downtown and shop on Main Street a short walk away. Indoor malls are SOOOOO 1980’s. Today cars are definately detracting from the Main St experience that so many people want to be a part of and hindering further economic growth in our downtowns.

    Also the simple reason why the pedestrian malls in European downtowns were so successful is because people there never abandoned their towns and cities like we did in the US. My mom’s small resort hometown in Germany has just about banned cars from the entire old city and business has thrived. In the 1980’s shops that were on streets open to traffic and not a part of the original pedestrian area pushed to have there streets included in the zone and now do MUCH MORE business then before.

    However it’s also easy to get a vehicle onto these streets when required so I wouldn’t suggest the heavily landscaped version show in Tulsa which seems to make emergency and delivery vehicle access difficult. Plus, its Tulsa. No offense but its not NYC.

  14. Actually Larry’s point is a good one, just not for NYC. People in places like mine will look to the London example and say why not, but we don’t have the pedestrian densities–mostly–to make this a success. You do in Manhattan and Brooklyn and Queens. But most U.S. cities do not have the kind of pedestrian density to make all pedestrian places active and successful. Even Project for Public Spaces doesn’t go around “mandating” pedestrian malls.

  15. Social conditions have changed since the 1970s, but I’m not sure merchant attitudes have. The attitude of politicians with permits certainly has not.

    Let’s take one example, 5th Avenue in Brooklyn, which has three major shopping centers along its length in Park Slope, Sunset Park and Bay Ridge. It also has a highly unreliable (due to traffic) but heavily used bus route, the B63. It has bike lanes. And there is a much wider parallel street — 4th Avenue — to take any displaced traffic.

    Let’s say someone were to propose limiting deliveries on 5th Avenue to the early morning hours, widening the sidewalks, and limiting its use to buses and bikes otherwise. That certainly would make life better for the people living over the stores.

    How would the merchants, many of them Mom & Pops, react? And how could that be changed? Perhaps a test during summer weekends?

  16. Andy B from Jersey mentioned a setup in his mother’s hometown in Germany where cars had been banned from an “old city” area resulting in thriving businesses. I saw a similar setup in Bordeaux last summer and the results were the same. They used movable bollards to block access most of the time while allowing delivery trucks, street cleaners, etc. to access the area during overnight hours.

  17. Not just in Europe, there’re small number of US towns succeed in pedestrian streets. I can recall Santa Monica in California has a section of their downtown street permanently close to traffic. It was designed that way.

    And it was packed, every time I went there.

  18. Richard,

    Indeed, we have both recommended to de-pedestrianize many ped malls as well as worked to help save many pedestrian malls from being opened to cars. Many malls die due to a lack of management and a lack of capacity to really manage streets and engage communities in their planning — a major limiting factor here in NYC for pedestrianization. The 3rd Street promenade is one we helped improve with better management.

    The temporary closing step would seem to be feasible for many NYC streets.

    Tokyo actually pedestrianizes their “5th Ave” every weekend:

    Hong Kong has developed a program of temporary, partial and full pedestrianization in 10 districts:

  19. all malls are “pedestrian malls”. all of them. suburban ones included. in the suburbs you drive your car to the mall, park, walk around the mall, buy stuff, get a hotdog on a stick in the food court, bring your booty back to your car and drive home. you don’t drive your car into the mall, from store to store that is something else.

    if new york were to close certain streets, or districts, like soho, to automobile traffic, people who drive would simply park in a lot, walk around soho, buy stuff, have lunch somewhere, take their swag back to their cars and drive home. this is no different from what they would have done in their suburbs.

    if soho were closed to cars, it would open up tons more space for people to sell more stuff. stuff in soho typically costs more than in other districts, therefore, the amount of taxes paid will be higher – taxes that go to the city to implement the things that we like and need. instead, soho, like every other district is nothing more than a parking lot with sidewalks – sidewalks too small to allow for efficient ingress and egress of shoppers/taxpayers to their beloved stores.

    it’s a simple f’n equation. i don’t even have a business degree and i can figure this out. more shoppers = more money for everyone, including tards like richard brodsky.

  20. Greetings from Oxford! I just landed this morning and walked to my lodging down the car-free Cornmarket Street. It looked a lot like the second photo on this post. It wasn’t jammed, but it was pretty full of pedestrians: tourists, students, locals. It’s obvious that the stores around there do a very brisk business.

    What struck me was that it was a wide street, much wider than Nassau Street in Manhattan, maybe as wide as Lower Broadway. I’ve been on failed pedestrian streets in Albuquerque and Binghamton (and Chicago’s State Street, but its failure is debatable), but I think it’s pretty much a no-brainer to say that this would work well on some of the streets in Manhattan that already have very heavy foot traffic.

    I had a little bit of time to spend in London this morning, but I had only been there twice before and for short periods, so I couldn’t really tell whether the congestion charge had improved things. Certainly the pedestrian entrance to Paddington Station could still use some work.

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