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Re-imagining Oxford Circus

Kaye Alexander looks at plans to redesign London’s Oxford Circus and alleviate the area’s congestion

‘Oxford Circus has lost its “circus” quality,’ says Peter Heath, principal urban designer at Atkins. ‘It is used so intensely that on the ground it is impossible to appreciate its circular nature.’

The reconfiguration of Oxford Circus, the heart of London’s main retail district, has been on Westminster City Council’s agenda for over 20 years. Heath worked on an improvement strategy during his time at the council in the late 1980s. Work on site began this week and the aim is to complete within 12 months.

Now, as part of the wider Oxford, Regent and Bond Street (ORB) Action Plan, Atkins is working with The Crown Estate, Transport for London (TfL) and the council to alleviate congestion caused by the 43,000 people and 2,000 vehicles that negotiate the junction every hour.

‘In a retail environment, people represent potential customers,’ says Heath. ‘Data shows that 11-15 per cent of these potential customers are not catered for – typically the elderly, people with young children and people with disabilities. And despite the high non-local visitor numbers, there are few repeat visits from tourists. The redesign aims to address this shortfall.’

Accessibility is key and a number of studies were conducted, with particular focus on blind users. ‘The consensus was that blind users do not want the unfamiliar option of crossing diagonally. An upstand kerb will therefore discourage the use of this route,’ says Paul Fraser, senior urban designer at Atkins. ‘The corrected alignment of the straight crossings will help such users who will be guided by tactile edging.’ TfL also insisted that crossing equipment be ‘future proofed’ to accommodate countdown-style signals via visual numbers and audio alarm.

THE CHANGES

1. Remove street clutter
An audit by Atkins found that within the immediate Oxford Circus zone, there are over 150 items of street furniture, each creating about 1m2 of ‘dead space’. Atkins aims to reduce this number by at least half. The staircase points for access to the London Underground are fixed and the existing stone balustrade renders the space between them redundant. In the new scheme this space provides an area for people waiting to cross to congregate without blocking
the pavement.

2, Increase pavement size
To redress the pedestrian/vehicular balance, pavement area is being increased by 63 per cent. With the extra space created by decluttering, this represents an overall increase of 69 per cent.

3. Realign crossing
The new crossing position reinstates the street line, reducing the detour pedestrians must make to continue along Oxford Street and Regent Street. The shorter crossing distance means the central refuge islands are not strictly necessary, but Atkins has retained a slimmer version to promote consistency and the perception of the space as symmetrical. There is potential to extend the central island device down the length of both streets, to accommodate numerous crossings.

4. Insert diagonal option
The option of crossing the circus diagonally will further alleviate congestion at crossing points and represent consumer ‘desire lines’. The Shibuya crossing in Tokyo, Japan, is the case study on which this idea was loosely modelled.

5. Rephase crossing
Rather than staggered crossing periods, which necessitate large central refuge islands, traffic-light systems will be coordinated to provide an ‘all-red’ phase to allow all pedestrians to cross at the same time, within the cycle time of 115-120 seconds. This is clearer and safer for pedestrians, and has vehicular advantages because stop lines can be moved forward and traffic can clear through more quickly.

6. Materials
The circumference of Oxford Circus, suggested by the curved facades of the buildings at each four ‘corners’, is reinforced by a curved paving line. This will be infilled with mottled paving, the small units of which are cheap to replace should any future excavation be necessary. It will also indicate a change in tempo from the granite and York stone flagstones of Oxford Street and Regent Street. A change to the aggregate mix of the tarmac will achieve the subtle definition of the central circle, diagonal crossing and straight crossings, accompanied by raised white circular and square studs.

CREDIT LIST

Urban design, transport planning and pedestrian movement Atkins
Planning authority City of Westminster
Funders The Crown Estate and Transport for London
Developer New West End Company
Contractor West One

The video shows how the new diagonal and the realigned pedestrian crossings will alleviate congestion at Oxford Circus.

USING ANIMATION

Atkins researched and produced a two-dimensional model that simulates pedestrian movement with software by Legion. This particle-based system ran seven different layered simulations controlling 5,000 virtual people, and was used to predict pedestrian behaviour such as clustering and walking speed in response to the new street layout. Visualisation firm Designhive combined the data from the Legion model and a 3D Studio Max model of the proposal to produce an accurate and compelling simulation – one of the first times this technique has been used. The particles were replaced with animated people, programmed to walk while the particles were moving and idle when the points stopped for traffic signals. A similar technique was used to create moving traffic from a VisSim model by Atkins. ‘The end result is a simulation that is difficult to distinguish from  a real piece of video footage,’ says Fraser.

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