It’s sometimes said that Sadiq Khan has failed to make his mark on the city, but it’s hard to make that argument stand up when it comes to air pollution. The Mayor, who suffers from asthma, quickly introduced a new “T-Charge” back in 2017, adding an extra levy on the most polluting vehicles during congestion charging hours. He then brought forward the introduction of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) – a Central London pollution charge operating 24/7 – by 17 months from the date Boris Johnson had set. Finally, he took the decision to later extend this ULEZ from the congestion charge zone to the North and South Circular roads, increasing its coverage by 18 times, though readers will note that this last measure falls the other side of next year’s mayoral election.
The cumulative effect of these reforms will be radical. Transport for London expects a quarter of the vehicles driving in Central London when the scheme launches next week will have to pay the charge – roughly 25,000 per day. But the extended zone, when established in October 2021, will affect perhaps 130,000 vehicles every day. The Mayor claims that the number of Londoners living in areas exceeding legal air quality limits will fall by 80 per cent, from 100,000 to 20,000. The number of primary schools in areas with illegal pollution levels within the zone will fall from 371 to 4.
TfL are not forthcoming on the amount of revenue they expect to raise from the expanded ULEZ, but if every one of those drivers were to pay the charge (£12.50 a day for cars, £100 for vans and £200 for lorries and buses), it would bring in as much as £750 million a year – three times the sum currently raised by the congestion charge. Even half that sum would go some way to filling the hole in TfL’s finances.
The scheme is not without its critics. Shaun Bailey, the Conservative mayoral candidate, is opposed to the expansion of ULEZ, hoping to capitalise on drivers’ attachment to their cars. You only have to look at France’s gilets jaunes to see how motorists can react when they feel they are being unfairly treated. But Sadiq is gambling, not unreasonably, that London is different. Car ownership is low and falling. More than 40 per cent of London households don’t own a car – twice the proportion of households outside the capital- and a full 60 per cent of Inner London (or from 2021) ULEZ residents don’t. Finally, voters seem to be getting the point about the harm vehicle pollution does.
The real problem with the ULEZ is that it feels a little retro. Like the congestion charge, it takes a cordon-based approach. Cordon schemes are relatively simple to run, but crude in character. They are insensitive to the distance a vehicle travels and the costs it imposes on others in terms of pollution or congestion once it has entered the zone. Someone who drives 100 miles inside it is charged the same amount as someone who drives 100 yards. Moreover, the ULEZ simply adds to the growing patchwork of charges established or planned for London. These include tolls on the Dartford Crossing and planned tolls for the forthcoming Silvertown and existing Blackwall tunnels, the London-wide Low Emission Zone (for polluting commercial vehicles) and the likely creation of a charging regime at Heathrow.
The congestion charge was introduced in 2003, when the Nokia mobile phone was still cutting edge and no one had ever heard of the smart devices. Things have moved on and it’s time for London’s approach to traffic management to move on with them. Cities around the world are beginning to experiment with distance-based road pricing schemes that charge according to drivers’ actual contribution to pollution and traffic. Where the congestion charge and the ULEZ are run as standalone schemes, a more sophisticated system integrated with public transport could nudge travellers to use greener, healthier and cheaper travel options.
If London is going to retain its position as one of the world’s leading transport cities, the next Mayor will have to replace the charges mushrooming across the capital with something simpler, smarter and fairer.