Can we road price all of London? Yes we can. But how soon and how well?

Can we road price all of London? Yes we can. But how soon and how well?

Yesterday evening’s On London online event in which a trio of top panelists addressed the question Can We Road Price All Of London? produced a lot of good answers, some short, others longer.

Caroline Pidgeon, a Liberal Democrat member of the London Assembly and frequent chair and deputy chair of its transport committee, began by saying “we can’t afford not to”.

The short answer of Adam Tyndall, programme director, transport, of business group London First, was: “It’s probably inevitable that we will, but it’s not inevitable that we do it well”.

Silviya Barrett from Campaign for Better Transport and co-author in 2019 of Green Light, a report for think tank Centre for London about “next generation road user charging”, underlined that the potential attraction of a “distance based system” that replaced the current patchwork of schemes would overcome many of the objections to them and “be fairer because it would replace the daily charge, which is quite a blunt tool”.

There was agreement on the panel that the technology required exists, although it would need to be deployed with care, particularly in relation to privacy. That said, as Silviya confirmed, there are currently no models to the type of system London would need, with even Singapore, which has the most advanced arrangements, not being a suitable example.

Larger problems might be the related ones of party politics and public trust. In Caroline‘s view, the “biggest hurdle” to London blazing a trail is Boris Johnson’s national government and Sadiq Khan’s City Hall being at “absolute loggerheads” with “an anti-London narrative and policy-making coming from Whitehall.” Sadly, “getting government to work with City Hall is going to be crucial to deliver such a bold policy”.

Adam made strong points about the need to build a consensus in favour of change, both political and social, rather than sidelining it in favour of talking about technical practicalities. “We’ve got to find a new way of talking to Londoners,” he said, especially in a situation where not only is congestion costing the economy an estimated £5 billion a year and getting worse, but also the profile of road-users and their reasons for being so is shifting. He stressed the importance of offering carrots as well as brandishing sticks when engaging Londoners, especially with public confidence in politics and politicians very low.

But although the obstacles remain substantial, there was a feeling that momentum for radical change has been growing. While noting that some political parties routinely oppose all kinds of traffic reduction measures, and that much of media is obsessed with what it calls a “war on cars”, Caroline pointed out that even Conservative fellow AMs signed up to a recommendation of a 2017 Assembly report on tackling congestion that the Mayor should develop proposals for “a new citywide road pricing scheme, which charges vehicles according to the extent, location and timing of their road usage”.

Although moving cautiously, Mayor Khan’s consultation about extending the Ultra Low Emission Zone to cover the whole of Greater London also seeks Londoners’ views about replacing existing charges with “a road user charging scheme that uses more sophisticated technology to make it as simple and fair as possible for Londoners”. He says that “TfL is still many years away from being ready to implement such a scheme”, but with a Commons select committee concluding in February that road pricing is, apart from anything else, essential for government finances, maybe the future is nearer than we think.

On London would like to again thank last night’s top-drawer trio of panelists and the audience of supporters and guests, which numbered around 25 and asked a bunch of very good questions. There is a great deal to follow up in future coverage. Watch this (road) space.

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