Wednesday, 15 February 2012

EastEnders and VIPs (Very Important Pedestrians)

A couple of weekends ago I found myself in North Greenwich, a stone’s throw from London’s O2, with a Travelcard in hand and a free evening. Although the Jubilee Line heads to the heart of the West End, there seemed to be as many people heading east as west, so I joined the throng, and detrained at Stratford. Once an expanse of railway yards and workshops, and now the epicentre of the London 2012 Olympic Games, Stratford is also home to the new mega mall of Westfield Stratford City. Stratford station has become an even more important transport interchange, and is now connected to a massive shopping centre with the Olympics attached (it was easier to find the shops than the Olympics, although presumably this will change as the Olympics draw near).
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Westfield Stratford City is east London’s mirror to Westfield’s other development, west of the city at Shepherds Bush. In an area like the East End that has been historically starved of amenities, the new mall is a glittering temple to consumerism, Clone Town Britain under one roof – practically the same chain shops as everywhere else, only more of them, and more upmarket. People seem to like it – thousands thronged the dry warm environs on a cold dark day, although few seemed to be buying much: Hanging Out At The Mall seems to have become an English leisure activity. No doubt the two Westfields are already sucking trade away from what’s left of traditional High Streets in east and west London, and it’s interesting to ponder the effect on Oxford Street, currently London’s busiest shopping street.
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Oxford Street is not a lot of fun: it’s mostly choked with slow moving buses and taxis. But on VIP day each year, Oxford Street takes an imaginative leap into a different world, when the street is closed to everything except Very Important Pedestrians. VIP day is hugely popular, and attracts millions of people.

Representatives of the West End shops have called for traffic to be banned from Oxford Street and Regent Street every Sunday, to give shoppers a break from “congestion hell.” Dame Judith Mayhew Jonas, chairman of the New West End Company which represents 600 retailers, was reported as saying "Wouldn't it be nice if the West End was traffic free every Sunday. Why not? It works in New York, where they have lots of community events on their streets in the summer and Christmas." Maybe it’s going to take the exodus of shoppers to the Westfields, with their great transport links and relaxed traffic-free ambience, to force Oxford Street to prove just how important pedestrians are. Roll on 24/7 VIPs.

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