The area around Oxford Circus in London is to be transformed into two pedestrianised piazzas after years of deliberation.
Work is due to start this year and will include “significant improvements to the public spaces”, as well as additional planting and seating in the shopping and leisure district, Westminster city council and the crown estate announced on Wednesday.
The pedestrianisation of Oxford Circus has been under discussion for many years, going back as far as the 1980s, because of the poor air quality, congestion and busy traffic in the area.
Plans have often been diverted or paused because of difficulties with rerouting buses, as well as concerns about increasing journey times and potential losses for taxi drivers.
A design competition run by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) starting this summer will help to deliver the final scheme to ensure “world-class designs” and “value for money”.
The project will work with Transport for London to improve access to Oxford Circus tube station and prioritise pedestrians.
Westminster city council said the new Elizabeth line would bring in an extra 60 million pedestrians a year, and that 70% of people travelled to Oxford Street by underground.
There will be road closures between Oxford Circus and Great Portland Street to the east and Oxford Circus and John Princes Street to the west through experimental traffic orders (ETOs). The traffic will continue along Regent Street, north and south of Oxford Circus.
The council will monitor and review the experimental changes as a part of the ETOs, considering feedback from residents, businesses and other stakeholders.
Longer-term plans for Oxford Circus include “major enhancements” to the western and eastern concourses of the tube station.
The changes also aim to improve air quality as the works are expected to reduce vehicle traffic and improve efficiency of bus journeys across the area.
The London mayor, Sadiq Khan, said: “The West End has taken a huge hit from Covid over the past 15 months and making our high streets cleaner, greener and more attractive is more important than ever to attract visitors and support businesses.
“Westminster council’s plans, which will start to give pedestrians priority by closing sections of Oxford Street to through traffic, are hugely welcome and will help transform this landmark location at a crucial time.”
The Westminster council leader, Rachael Robathan, said: “There is an urgent need to tackle issues with pedestrian congestion and safety, poor air quality and noise.
“The serious congestion of Oxford Circus, of people and of traffic, is unsustainable and demands action.
“In the aftermath of the pandemic, and with the arrival of the Elizabeth line, there is an overwhelming need and a compelling opportunity to build back better; a business-as-usual approach will no longer work.
“We hope the creation of these pedestrian-only piazzas at Oxford Circus will not only improve safety, security and accessibility but create an iconic destination at the heart of London.”
The scheme is linked with Westminster council’s Greenways project, which is designed to improve the experience of cyclists in the borough.
The plans will be carried out through a “phased approach”, starting with two car-free piazzas in Oxford Street, at either side of the Circus, due to be finished by the end of 2021.
The second phase of the programme, “major improvements to the public realm”, will start in spring 2022.
The council has already committed £150m towards programmes in the Oxford Street district, which before the pandemic was attracting 200 million visitors a year and employing 155,000 workers.