You’d have thought we’d have got used to motor cars by now, but here in the West End they’re virtually banned, and the stark warning “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here” might as well come up on visitors’ satnavs. Central London tolerates walkers, adores cyclists (especially those who use the pavements), but it positively hatespeople who want or, God forbid, actually need a taxi or any kind of car – and that even includes ambulances.
It’s not for nothing that I have my mole in the Highways Department on speed dial – how else am I to find out which streets are going to be closed next? Because, here in Soho, as elsewhere, we don’t get warnings of any kind, we just get big yellow signs at the same moment the drills enter the asphalt.
One look at the summer of 2014 and you wonder just why Westminster City Council should have chosen to close the West End at the height of the tourist season. I first got a taste of what was to come on the 2nd June, when Oxford Street westbound was closed so that Thames Water could dig holes in it.
What turned this drama for many into a crisis for Soho was that every kind of vehicle found itself turned aside into our area, but then couldn’t get out; and to these add delivery vans and taxis which had been dropping off goods and people, and were now trapped along with the rest. With blinding foresight, Beak Street (leading out to Regent Street) and Lexington Street (leading out to Brewer Street and thence to Wardour Street) had already been closed for weeks!
Oh, and traffic in Wardour Street couldn’t turn west in Oxford Street because of the Thames Water holes and was forced north towards the Post Office tower.
The only exit was via Poland Street, which leads into Great Marlborough Street and the always stationary queue waiting through the hours for the lights at Regent Street to change and grudgingly let out one vehicle at a time. This junction, by the way, is known locally as No Hope Corner.
From the windows of my flat I looked down on a motionless sea of metal. Drivers got out of their cars and vans and leant on their bonnets and either raged or despaired, and what I could see for myself was backed up as my phone began ringing and the awful human stories poured in.
A friend taking someone to a vital appointment at University College Hospital, Euston Road, had to push the patient in a wheelchair the whole way there from Soho and back again and ended up nearly crippled himself – pushing someone heavy that kind of distance should qualify as an Olympic event.
Worse still, hospital transport bringing a patient back home was stuck in the gridlock and turned a similarly wheelchair-bound invalid out into the chaos, leaving it to his companion to struggle along narrow pavements and through alleys and somehow manage to heave the chair and its helpless occupant the whole long way to their flat by herself.
No emergency vehicle of any type could have entered Soho or left it, and it took days to sort out the nightmare.
But this was only a foretaste of what was to come. Later in June, I was in a vehicle bowling up Oxford Street towards a medical appointment in Bloomsbury, only to see the driver confronted by a brand new diversion sign. Off we were sent on a round tour of Fitzrovia, along with what seemed like every bus in London. Oxford Street eastbound, as crucial and busy as westbound and one of the great West End arteries, was closed for resurfacing. Stuck in a boiling jam, we eventually found ourselves unable to get nearer than what was for me a very painful hundred yards from my destination, whilst my driver hit his head on his steering wheel and asked the world how the Hell he was supposed to get to Marylebone, where he’d been due to pick someone else up ten minutes ago.
Back home hours later, I screamed down the phone at my mole, and learned that Oxford Street eastbound was going to stay closed until the end of August!
Again, no warning had been issued. It never is. And having consulted with a neighbour who’d taken a taxi to University College Hospital, I cancelled my appointments: the one-way taxi fare (usually under £10) had, via the new scenic route, cost over £50.
In July another element was introduced to the lock-down: on every Sunday that month traffic was barred from the whole of Regent Street, and it was pedestrianised. What fun! Soho was completely shut.
Add to this constant other street closures, some of the most draconian of which routinely took place over weekends, so that cranes and heavy plant could be moved about, and you start to feel more than got at: you’re an endangered species, literally.
At the height of the nightmare, BBC London News carried the information that there were future plans to ban all transport but cycles and some buses from Tottenham Court Road. Tottenham Court Road terminates where University College Hospital stands, on the corner of Euston Road. It is the only route by which taxis, cars or ambulances can reach the hospital, coming from the west. So if you can’t walk as far as a bus stop, (and London Transport have, unannounced, removed several from Oxford Street, so there’s a far greater distance between them) or have difficulties with buses altogether, what will you do? I haven’t the faintest idea.
Nor does my heart leap at the recent declaration by Christian Wolmar, who plans to stand as a mayoral candidate in 2016, that he wants Oxford Street to be totally pedestrianised, permanently. Not a wheel should be on it, in his vision. People I know are saying he should wait till all the old people are dead – and that won’t be long if things go on as they are.
Oxford Street carries 300 packed buses at peak times – and taxis, and fire engines, and ambulances, and police cars – and where the Hell would all that traffic go? The streets North and South of Oxford Street are narrow, quaint and in many cases charming, and to expect them to cope with the volume of vehicles that Oxford Street carries isn’t only asking the impossible, it would also destroy their character and endanger many of the historic buildings that line them.
I don’t know exactly when or why it was first thought that the West End should become one great pedestrian shopping mall, but I’m hoping and praying it won’t happen, before so much that’s valuable and irreplaceable would be lost – and I don’t just mean lives. I’ve already heard of listed buildings being razed to make way for yet another development, amongst the dense forest of uninteresting new structures that cover all that was once unique and special. Towering, incongruous offices are marching across my beloved London like one of the worst armies from Dr. Who, and how I wish he could leap out of the television to protect the capital from annihilation. It needs someone like him to remind the authorities that, for centuries, this wasn’t just a city of walkers but of people who used horses and carts and carriages and hansom cabs. We have always needed wheeled transport and we always will, and shutting motors out of the West End isn’t just impractical, it’s insane.
All the progress, all the knowledge we’ve accumulated by the twenty first century, and if this kind of legislation continues deliveries will have to be made to stores by pack mule and we’ll need a passport before we can hire a taxi.
Along with so many other people who live and work in London I’d rather we banned the barriers and welcomed back that wonderful, useful invention, the car.
© Alida Baxter