What comes after the London congestion charge?

When introduced in 2003, London’s congestion charge made history: the UK capital was the first major city after Singapore to introduce road pricing for vehicles entering the city core.

Despite political backlash and predictions of dire economic consequences, the charge succeeded in curbing London traffic, proving that vehicle charges could be an effective way to reduce congestion and pollution – and providing a model that others big cities are still trying to imitate. Eighteen years later, however, many argue that the charge in its current form is obsolete.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan recently announced that the city is considering scrapping the charge for motor vehicles traveling through central London, replacing it with a charge for all car journeys. across the whole city. Although the exact form the congestion charge replacement will take has not yet been decided, it seems very likely that its days in its current form are numbered.

For many experts, change is already overdue. A more comprehensive form of traffic control is badly needed if London is to have any chance of meeting the mayor’s target of net zero carbon emissions by 2030. The city’s own research estimates that a drop 27% of kilometers traveled will be needed to achieve this goal. So far, the measures introduced in addition to the congestion charge – notably the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) which charges the most polluting vehicles an additional daily fee of USD 17 to pass through an area significantly larger than the congestion charge zone – have failed. to reduce pollution levels.

Additionally, the city faces an urgent pandemic-related funding disaster. Because passenger numbers have still not recovered from nearly two years of COVID-related lockdowns and remote working habits, Transport for London (TfL), the city’s public transport body, cash-strapped, with its current bailout arrangements ending Feb. 4. Stricter limits on driving across all of London could help entice Londoners to get back on buses and trains, easing the funding crunch.


The push for an alternative does not mean congestion charging has been a failure. In the first 12 months of the charge, traffic on central London streets during charging hours fell by 18% and traffic delays by 30%; after some initial resistance, the charge won the approval of most businesses in the region. The problem is that conditions have changed since the early 2000s.

The number of private vehicles may have declined in central London, but they have been replaced by a growth in private taxis and delivery vans, fueled by the rise of ride-sharing apps and online shopping. By 2016, central London congestion had risen again to worse levels than before the charge was introduced.

The geographic scope of the area also proved too narrow to allow for a drastic change in cars – although again it had some successes. London’s modal share for private transport (mainly cars) decreased by 11.8 percentage points between 2000 and 2019.

This is a positive step, but it masks the fact that the total number of private vehicle journeys remained stable between 2011 and 2019, at around 10 million daily journeys. Instead, this change reflects an increase in the number of journeys by foot, bicycle or public transport as the population of London has grown.

It’s a good thing: London isn’t paying for population growth with more cars on the road. It does, however, mean that the number of vehicles producing heavy emissions of carbon and other pollutants has remained stubbornly stable.


Getting more people to give up regular driving could also help alleviate another looming crisis: how to maintain good transit service in a time when ridership revenues will only slowly recover from their era slump. COVID. In the third quarter of 2021 (the latest quarter for which data is available), rail and bus journeys accounted for just 25% of London’s total, down from 35.8% in 2019. Not all of these journeys were transferred to private vehicles – walking and cycling trips. rose as well as those by car – but it left a hole in TfL’s finances. The agency has already been hit by the delayed opening of Crossrail, a new heavy rail service across the city due to start in June 2022 after a three-year delay.

In November, Mayor Khan warned that substantial cuts to metro and bus services would be needed without an injection of new funds; the state stepped in to keep the network afloat, disbursing US$5.4 billion in additional subsidies in December 2021.

This situation is not unique to London – transit agencies in Paris and Berlin also needed government bailouts after ridership plummeted. The crisis could nevertheless be deeper in London due to the reduction in subsidies for the network – it derives 47% of its financing from the sale of tickets compared to 38% for Ile-de-France Mobilités, the public transport system of the Parisian region.

With London Mayor Khan the most prominent elected official in Britain’s opposition Labor Party, the city cannot necessarily expect continued or enthusiastic help from the Conservative National Government.

What could help, however, are new measures that discourage car driving, get people back on public transport and help close the funding gap.


A citywide “commuting tax” that levies a fee on motorists based on their journey could be a powerful lever to get drivers out of their vehicles. But the way forward to introduce such a charge in London is still unclear beyond an aspiration to do so between 2025 and 2030. As a January 18 City report clarified, it would take time to put in place the technology necessary to manage such compensation. – Pricing system according to driving.

In the meantime, therefore, the city may adopt other anti-congestion and anti-pollution measures, such as extending the current ultra-low emission zone to the city borders, so that vehicles very polluting should pay to drive anywhere in the city.

Another option would be to extend the scope of the ULEZ by requiring all vehicles except the least polluting vehicles to pay this charge. Drivers in the capital could be charged a low daily fee for any driving – presumably with exceptions for people with disabilities and low incomes. Another option is to charge all non-London registered vehicles a fee to enter the city.

Exactly how the public will receive these plans remains to be seen. A major move to road pricing could spark resentment, and the city could run into trouble if it doesn’t provide enough assistance to help low-income drivers switch to clean vehicles.

When the ULEZ was first extended beyond central London in 2021, the city’s US$75.5 million allocation for grants to help people buy a cleaner vehicle ran out before that all demand is met.

With no concrete plans, the response to the mayor’s suggestions has so far been mixed – perhaps because the most controversial car-related issue in the city seems less to be the cost of driving than the where driving is permitted. The city’s low-traffic neighborhoods—areas where car access is heavily restricted—remain widely disliked by drivers for their inconvenience and by some residents for the movement of cars on thoroughfares. Support for road pricing, on the other hand, appears to be rising, with a national survey from October 2021 finding a plurality in favor of the measure if it replaced current road and fuel taxes, widely seen as unfair.

Meanwhile, as London prepares to replace its congestion charge, New York City is set to introduce its own belatedly. The message from the UK, however, is not necessarily that the policy is not working. It’s more than just a tool in an ongoing campaign to reduce traffic and pollution – a tool that may ultimately outlive its usefulness.

About Jun Quentin

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