Transport for London’s proposed changes to Congestion Charge operating hours, announced yesterday, include going back to ending the charging day at 6.00 pm instead of 10.00 pm and reducing weekend hours to noon until 6.00.
Like the £15 daily levy – a hike from the previous £11.50, which is to be retained – the current 7.00 am to 10.00 pm seven-day-a-week arrangement was effectively put upon Londoners by the government in return for drip-fed financial support for TfL after its revenues collapsed because of Covid. Assuming the new proposals go ahead they will be a welcome softening of the regime.
When it was first introduced in London in 2003, congestion charging – then priced at a mere £5 per day – was regarded by many as a brave move by the then Mayor, Ken Livingstone. It was, in policy terms, an opportunity to do four things: improve air quality; improve the efficiency of London’s economy by rationing valuable road space; raise resources to spend on public transport (albeit limited amounts); and, finally, provide all road users – including bus passengers – with slightly faster journey times and higher levels of reliability.
Over the last 18 years, some or all of these objectives have been achieved. After the first four years, a review found there had been a 30 per cent reduction in traffic. Analysis by TfL suggested that journey times too had improved, along with air quality. But in more recent years, the scheme has struggled to deliver on some of what should perhaps have remained its key objectives.
Between 2007 and 2015, despite a big reduction in traffic volume of around 20 per cent, average speeds – including those for buses – actually fell by as much as 13 per cent. This was caused by, among, other things, an explosion in the number of traffic lights on streets, more space for pedestrians – and, of course, for cyclists – plus unending and increasing volumes of roadworks. Many of these trends have continued.
Pre-Covid, Central London was in the remarkable position of having declining vehicle numbers alongside declining vehicle speeds. Since then, despite the congestion charge changes that came into effect last June, dictated from Number 10, in some parts of Central London, traffic jams are a regular occurrence. At the same time, many other roads have become deserted.
All this raises questions around the fairness of charging drivers and then effectively punishing them by other means, even at quieter times of day. It also raises quality of life issues for those people who live on streets that have become artificially congested or which have been emptied out by often well-intentioned traffic reduction schemes. In economic terms, the last 12 months has seen some discretionary motor traffic – for example, families visiting restaurants at weekends – almost extinguished.
Some might say that all this is a price worth paying to rid central London of cars. But the reality is that the vast majority of vehicles in Central London are working traffic, not hordes of private motorists. And many of those trips diverted from the centre by high charges will end up being made instead to out-of-town locations, further strengthening the grip of more car-dependent lower density developments at the outer edges of the city and beyond.
TfL is now right to want to revise the Congestion Charge operating hours again. The changes imposed at the start of the pandemic with the approval of the Prime Minister’s office have damaged Central London businesses and penalised motorists who are generating little in the way of costs to anyone else. Drivers are rightly charged to drive, especially where road space is at a premium. But to avoid Central London becoming a theme park and corroding trust among those who need to use its roads, a balanced, sustainable approach to traffic management and charging that allows traffic to move at a reasonable speed is surely required.
Alexander Jan is chair of the Central District Alliance and Hatton Garden BIDS and chief economic adviser to the London Property Alliance.
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