Slow and fast lanes for pedestrians of Oxford Street?

Shoppers on Oxford Street in central London.

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Kai Ryssdal: Given that we're just getting out of a recession that really took a chunk out of worldwide consumer demand, Oxford Street in central London has an enviable problem. It's Europe's busiest shopping district. Two hundred million people a year, $10 billion in consumer spending. But all that commercial success has caused a physical problem -- too many people in not enough space. Which in turn has forced a creative solution.

From Oxford Street, Marketplace's Stephen Beard reports.


Stephen Beard: It's four o'clock on a weekday afternoon and the sidewalk here is packed with hundreds of pedestrians. But, says Jace Tyrrell of the New West End Company, take a closer look at the heaving mass and you see two quite distinct kinds of people. First, there are the dawdlers.

Jace Tyrrell: Those who want to go slow, that want to look at the windows, come in and out of the shops, have more of a leisurely experience, probably more like the tourists that come here.

But they tend to get in the way of the second type of pedestrian.

Tyrrell: Perhaps those that live in London, work in London particularly in the West End. Know where they're going, with intent, often with purpose. They want to be fast, moving quickly.

The obvious solution, says Jayce, is to paint a line down the middle of the sidewalk dividing in two -- with a slow lane next to the shop windows and a fast lane next to the road. Many pedestrians seem to approve.

Woman: Yes, I should think it's probably quite a good idea, because there is so much pedestrian traffic along here now.

Man: Everybody's bumping into each other. I mean, I stand here and I get umbrellas in my face. I get everything, 'cos I'm forever bumping into people or people bumping into me. So yeah, I think it's a good idea.

But enthusiasm for the plan tends to falter when it comes to enforcement. One idea is for the street to be patrolled by wardens with on-the-spot fines for dawdlers who stray into the fast lane and fail to reach the minimum speed of three miles an hour. That has provoked the ire of one of Britain's most venerable lobby groups.

Tony Armstrong: Well, we're the national charity in the U.K. that campaigns for the rights of pedestrians.

Including the inalienable right to walk on any part of the sidewalk at whatever speed you choose. Tony Armstrong of the Pedestrian Society -- recently renamed Living Streets -- takes a dim view of the two-speed approach.

Armstrong: Crazy. This solution, making a freeway for pedestrians, is just really a crazy idea. Because it's unenforceable. And it really doesn't address the problem we have on the street.

And the root problem, according to the Pedestrian Lobby, is not the dawdlers or the speed walkers -- it's the road traffic. It's calling for a total ban on vehicles on Oxford Street.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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