Running for around a mile and a half, Oxford Street slices its way through the centre of London rather like a garish, bus-ridden, concrete strip of hell. Lauded as something of a Mecca for shoppers, Oxford Street is, in fact, one of the most over-rated shopping venues in the UK.
To the pedestrian, Oxford Street is, at least, very accessible. Although serviced by several Underground stations, the main point of arrival for shoppers is likely to be Oxford Circus, which erupts onto the pavements of the four corners of the junction with Regent Street, with scant attention for safety, convenience or comfort. To anyone with anything more than a passing knowledge of Oxford Street, this is a location to be avoided at any time, but the swarms of passengers in and out of the subway at peak times clearly have no choice. There are loads and loads of bus services along Oxford Street also, bringing throngs of shoppers in from every part of London, and a steady stream of black taxis taking advantage of the fact that (accidents notwithstanding) they can zip from one end of town to another. Private cars are not allowed on Oxford Street, but then we know the Mayor doesn’t want them anywhere near the place anyway.
This means that Oxford Street is almost entirely a rat run. The buses thunder along, paying no attention to pedestrians trying to get across the road and bunch up behind each other as if to blockade anyone patient enough to wait for a space. The pavements are barely wide enough to comfortably accommodate a group wider than four adults and, when you’ve navigated your way around the various litter bins, recycling bins, unused phone boxes and tourist information points, it starts to feel like an assault course. Additionally, given that the entire stretch of pavement is outdoors, you are entirely at the mercy of the elements and I can think of few things more miserable than traipsing along Oxford Street in the pouring rain, desperately trying to ensure that both eyes aren’t plucked from the sockets by yet another Hello Kitty umbrella.
This brings me on neatly to the insufferable patrons who choke the streets and seem intent on preventing anyone who is actually interested in buying anything from getting anywhere near somewhere they might actually buy something. Tourists are, by far, the worst; quite why anyone with half a brain would see Oxford Street as a tourist attraction, I’m not sure, but they turn up in their masses, cameras in hand, silly shoes a-plenty, drifting along the pavement with the other pedestrians and generally getting in everyone’s way. More often than not, they’ll stop dead, completely blocking the flow and then turn around, deciding to go in completely the opposite direction. As such, the real shoppers generally take their lives in their hands and step into the street to get round them, narrowly avoiding the speeding buses or deluges of water thrown up as yet another taxi hurtles through a puddle.
Oxford Street is in desperate need of pedestrianisation. Even if only one side were closed off, leaving one side for a bus lane in one direction, things would improve dramatically. The problems with traffic are particularly acute around the Oxford Circus tube station exits, where there simply isn’t enough room for anyone to move and at peak times, things get dangerously crowded. Add to this the factor of slippery steps and surfaces, and the whole area is generally one big hazard. There always seems to be at least a dozen shop units undergoing some kind of refit, which in turn eats up the available space with scaffolding and hoardings concealing the forthcoming launch of yet another branch of H & M.
It’s not even the case that the shops are that good. If you put the large department stores to one side (Selfridges, House of Fraser and John Lewis all very good) there is very little on Oxford Street that you won’t find on your average British high street. All the chains are represented, with many of the clothes chains and mobile phone stores having a number of branches peppered along the length of the street as it becomes clear that shoppers lose the will to live after more than a few hundred yards. Many of the branches aren’t actually that big and it’s only certain stores that see their Oxford Street outlet as a “flagship”. Multiple and/or smaller branches mean that the range isn’t always as expansive as you would imagine and in some cases, you’ll need to visit all three branches of, for example, Next to find the item you’re looking for. There are very few stores that feel any different to their smaller counterparts, and it’s hard to see why anyone is ever particularly positive about the place.
There’s very little “high end” stuff here. Most shoppers can be seen armed with bags from Primark and Top Man (ick) or Top Shop (ickette), whose large stores seem to magnetically attract everyone in sight. The clothes shops are all the multiples, leaving Bond Street, Regent Street and the environs to cater for the designer brands and boutiques. Towards the Tottenham Court Road end, it gets even worse, with a plethora of nasty, cheap clothes stores selling knock-off cigarettes, Burberry-effect gold chains and sub-standard leather jackets via dirty little premises to a soundtrack of constantly pounding, distorted music. Given the relative cost of units here, it’s amazing that the rag traders can afford the premises, but there seems to be a plentiful supply of punters to keep them in business. There are infrequent stall holders along the way too, some of them selling fruit, some of them selling the most pointless of souvenirs, all of them needing a good wash.
And, tiring as it all is, there isn’t even much to be found in the way of places to eat, drink or relax. Food is essentially your McDonalds or KFC fayre and there isn’t anywhere to actually sit and relax. Toilets are few and far between, the constant trail of people in and out of McDonalds to use the “facilities” renders them barely usable (and you quickly realise that some people really need to see a doctor about their bowel problems). Noticeably, there is very little police presence in Oxford Street either. You’d expect to see lots of “bobbies” on the beat but in actual fact, you rarely see one, and it’s relatively common for pickpockets and bag snatchers to work the area. This is a particular problem later in the evening; most of the stores are open until 21:00 Monday to Saturday, which is very convenient but not so good when it gets dark.
In comparison to other, re-developed city centre high streets, Oxford Street is shamefully inadequate. Compare Oxford Street with the centres of Birmingham and Liverpool, for example, and you’ll find Oxford Street lagging behind in terms of stores, accessibility, facilities and cleanliness. Compare again to the likes of Lakeside, Bluewater, The Metro Centre or The Trafford Centre and Oxford Street is a joke. Until such time that the Mayor acknowledges the poor facilities (and does something about them) Oxford Street is to be avoided unless it’s an absolute emergency.