The Baker Street Two Way project is set to transform the feel of large swathes of Marylebone. The Journal traces its development
Words: Mark Riddaway
Back in 2011, when Paul Neville volunteered to join the Marylebone Association committee and take responsibility for its traffic and city management brief, he quickly became aware of a particular source of angst among local residents. “When I started in the role, the first wave of complaints I heard from members was about how dangerous Gloucester Place is, how you can’t cross it safely; the same with Baker Street,” he explains. Cars and vans have for decades dominated these two long, wide, one-way streets, which slice north to south through the heart of Marylebone. Pedestrians are forced to either submit to the meagre provision of crossing points or else dive perilously into a sea of traffic. “I mentioned this to Simon Loomes at The Portman Estate,” says Paul. “He just smiled and said: ‘Don’t worry: we have a plan.’”
This plan—now known as the Baker Street Two Way project—had already been several years in the making. In 2008, The Portman Estate had commissioned Jan Gehl, a renowned Danish architect and urban design consultant, to produce an assessment of the public realm on the western side of Marylebone. The Estate’s aspiration was to “encourage a rebalancing of the use of public space between pedestrians on the one hand and vehicles, which have come to dominate, on the other”. One of the report’s recommendations was particularly compelling: the Baker Street-Gloucester Place gyratory system needed to go. Quietly but determinedly, the Estate set about trying to make that happen.
In 1961, when the area’s gyratory system was installed, the orthodoxy was that these large single-direction highways would benefit drivers, whose needs at the time were considered absolutely paramount. We now know better: rather than speeding up journey times, urban gyratory systems slow them down, forcing drivers to follow unnaturally long routes or else attempt to circumvent the flow through awkward turning manoeuvres and rat-runs down side streets. More importantly, they are a blight upon the local environment. On Baker Street and Gloucester Place, vehicles sit across four lanes, revving at the lights before blasting at speed down to the next set of lights, where they sit and rev again—devastating for pollution levels and terrifying for pedestrians confronted by scenes more befitting of a 1970s Los Angeles cop film than a quiet London neighbourhood.
Paul concurred with The Portman Estate that a change was desperately needed. “I agreed that making the roads two-way would solve the crossing problem and make the place more civilised,” he says. “I think the stop-start nature of the traffic—the way that cars zoom from junction to junction—makes this not a pleasant place to be. I also thought that you could make the entire public realm better at the same time.” Cynthia Poole, the planning committee chair at the St Marylebone Society, which represents residents north of Marylebone Road, agreed: “The gyratory has always been the worst thing about this area. Where I live, it turns us into an island in a sea of traffic.”
Businesses on and around Baker Street, an area with a high proportion of commercial tenants, were, it turned out, equally keen for something radical to be done. When the Baker Street Quarter Partnership, the area’s business improvement district (BID), was launched in 2013, its chief executive Penny Alexander was met with a consistent message from the local businesses that fund and direct the BID. “When we started, we began doing research into what they would like to change, and traffic dominance was right up there,” says Penny. “In fact, it was the number one priority of our members and their staff for the first three years of our existence.”
Between them, the Baker Street Quarter Partnership and The Portman Estate were willing to pledge millions of pounds to the proposed two-way scheme, and Westminster City Council was highly supportive of the plan. But for anything to happen, considerable public funding would be needed, together with a fairly epic commitment of both time and resources. The timing, though, was propitious: a shift in philosophy at Transport for London meant that gyratory systems all over London were already under scrutiny. A similar reconfiguration of the Piccadilly gyratory system had resulted in fewer traffic jams and bottlenecks, and a far more pedestrian-friendly environment. The appetite for change was unquestionably there.
TfL would doubtless have eventually got round to Baker Street, but, says Penny, the backing of both the local BID and one of the historic estates made the authority’s decision to commit funding even easier. “Our aspirations were a very good fit with TfL’s aspirations, and I think from their point of view it was useful to have local stakeholders who were willing to put themselves behind it, both by speaking up for the idea and putting money into it. Together, it meant that it would definitely happen.”
Far from simple
So happen it did, slowly but surely. The logistics were far from simple: major traffic projects are notoriously difficult to carry out in central London—no section of road exists in a vacuum, so any change sends out ripples (and sometimes waves) like a rock being chucked in a pond—and the occasionally competing needs of vehicles and pedestrians, residents and businesses, bikes and cars, all need to be taken into account, meaning that no plan will ever be universally perfect. The bureaucracy was also a challenge: Westminster is responsible for Baker Street and Gloucester Place south of Marylebone Road; Transport for London is responsible for the northerly sections of the same roads, plus the behemoth of Marylebone Road itself. Entirely different parts of TfL have responsibility for cycle lanes and bus routes. A lot of voices needed to be heard and a lot of priorities balanced.
The initial plans for the Baker Street Two Way were published in May 2015. And then the hard work really began: convincing the public. “It’s a big change, and residents wanted to be reassured that this was being done properly, with the right intentions, and that it wasn’t going to damage their roads,” says Penny. “From the outset, Westminster was insistent that this scheme should not push traffic onto residential streets—that would not be acceptable—but the challenge, understandably, was to get people to believe that.” The consultation process, which came in three separate waves, was long and intense.
Almost inevitably, there were disagreements. “When we first saw the plans, we had some reservations,” says Paul. “The main one for us was that they wanted to stop vehicles turning left at the top of Gloucester Place onto Marylebone Road, which would have meant traffic filtering through the more residential left turns along there instead.” On the St Marylebone Society’s patch, north of Marylebone Road, the rather knotty alignment of streets made the risk of unintended consequences particularly fraught. “Everyone was concerned about traffic being driven into the smaller streets. We’re already blighted by very high pollution and congestion, so anything that did that was fiercely opposed,” says Cynthia.
While some residents began their own vociferous campaign in objection to the scheme, the two amenity societies started intensive talks with Westminster and TfL. “While the protest were going on, we were having constructive discussions—I think we had the same broad aim, just a difference of approach,” says Paul. Bit by bit, the plan was amended to take into account most of the concerns raised by both associations, including amendments to the Gloucester Place turning and to the Ivor Place and Rossmore Road intersections, which had caused particular anxieties.
“The two amenity societies were definitely listened to,” says Penny. “Changes were made. We’re full of gratitude to those individuals who took so much time to give constructive feedback on the scheme, and continue to do so. They really care—this is their home, so of course they do—and as local residents they understand better than anyone how their area works.” While TfL and Westminster had sophisticated modelling tools at their disposal, something that seems simple when viewed in the abstract can prove to be much more problematic when the unique conditions at street level are take into account, so the input of residents and business was essential. Without their involvement the final plan would have been very different—and considerably less effective.
Work has now begun in earnest on preparing the area’s roads for the change, and it will continue until early 2019, when the gyratory system will finally be confined to history. Most people now seem relatively content. “There are some who are very pleased, some who are just glad it’s done with, and a few who will never think it’s a good idea,” says Cynthia. “But that is always the way.”
The work won’t stop when the two-way traffic starts, with TfL and Westminster having committed to a six-month monitoring phase to ensure that any unintended consequences are dealt with. “We were adamant that proper monitoring should be part of the plan,” says Penny. “We will go back and look at this once it’s in—it’s a complex scheme, and we know it won’t be perfect from day one.”
The amenity societies will remain resolute in holding the authorities to account. “We think they’ll respond, and we’ll put pressure on them if they don’t,” confirms Cynthia. The St Marylebone Society is carrying out its own pollution monitoring, in partnership with Imperial College London, and is even planning its own assessment of traffic flows.
Both she and Paul are reassured by the ongoing involvement of the Baker Street Quarter Partnership and The Portman Estate. “We’re not going anywhere, the Estate isn’t going anywhere,” agrees Penny. “These are our neighbours, these are people we see all the time, so it would be a complete failure if after going through this process, residents felt they hadn’t been listened to. Neither us nor the Estate could live with that: we are still all neighbours. Much though it was a difficult process, with some heated meetings and some points that we didn’t all fully agree on, we have all ended up still friends.”
Concerns about traffic have, says Penny, somewhat overshadowed the main point of the exercise. The flow of vehicles should be smoother and the resulting emissions marginally lower, but there won’t be fewer cars on the road, or fewer roads with cars on—that was never really a possibility. “I think partly because of the project’s name—Baker Street Two Way—there’s an assumption that this is all about traffic, and it’s not. It’s actually all about the pedestrian experience. This is all about improving the environment for people moving around by foot.”
As part of the scheme, pavements will be widened, trees planted, unnecessary road signs removed, dozens more pedestrian crossings installed. Major improvements will be made to the awful crossing outside Baker Street station. Buses will be able to head both ways on both streets, making access easier, and more buses will run along Baker Street rather than the more residential Gloucester Place.
Within a few years, the expectation is that both roads will look and feel very different to today. “Currently, as a pedestrian, you feel like you’re walking down an A-road; sitting in a pavement café you feel like you’re sitting at the side of a motorway,” says Penny. “The ambience, the feel of the streets, is just so unwelcoming. Visitors put their heads down and march through, residents find other routes. In the future, we expect that the retail offering will evolve and people will hopefully choose to spend time here.” Baker Street will be two-way—but metaphorically at least, it is only heading in one direction.