Caroline Russell: London needs smart road-pricing now

Caroline Russell: London needs smart road-pricing now

Road transport in the capital is a high speed car chase, hurtling us towards climate catastrophe, belching toxic air pollution as we head towards the point of no return. We need to hit the brakes hard on this out-of-control vehicle.

While the congestion charge and ultra low emission zone (ULEZ) have dampened demand on our roads, traffic has started to creep up again. Bus, Tube and train trips are down and the growth in cycle journeys has decelerated. The car is still clinging on to its crown as king of the road.

To really reduce the amount of unnecessary vehicle trips on our roads, we need smart, fair road pricing. I have been asking the Mayor since 2017 to introduce this on our roads to curb unnecessary vehicle journeys, without penalising people making infrequent trips.

Currently, the flat rate fee for the congestion charge or ULEZ means there are no time restrictions on driving within the zone, so once a driver has paid for the day there’s no penalty for driving more, leading to clogged-up roads and more harmful emissions. London’s drivers lose up to £1,680 or 227 hours per year due to congestion, making it the bottleneck capital of the UK and the sixth most grid-locked city globally.

Smart, fair road pricing is an idea whose time has come and London should be leading the way in transport innovation, as it has for the last 150 years. London was the first city to have an underground railway and the first to electrify it. The start of the 21st century brought in the capital’s unified transport system under Transport for London, which has enabled successive Mayors to bring in the Oyster card, hire bikes, congestion charging, cycleways and now the ULEZ.

TfL would have the perfect opportunity to collect movement data and, using the rapid technological advances in app-enabled transport, they could be far more clever about charging drivers to use roads. This would, of course, only be supported when proper privacy protection is in place to ensure any data was completely secure and anonymised.

It would be entirely possible to charge drivers for the distance they travel and by how polluting their car is, while taking into account the time of day and surrounding levels of congestion and pollution, as well as the availability of public transport. This would mean that if you chose to drive around in a polluting 4×4 in an area with good transport links and high pollution, you would be charged more than someone in a small car making a journey that couldn’t be done using the Tube or rail network instead. 

London is trailing Singapore, Stockholm, Gothenburg and Milan, where versions of such road charging are already happening. Their experiences show that quite modest charges can stimulate significant change, with cuts in traffic ranging from nine percent in Gothenburg (a city already quite keen on active travel and cycling) to 47 per cent in Milan.

Think tank Centre for London found that if drivers on the most congested streets are charged the equivalent of a bus ticket, emissions and air pollution could be reduced by up to a fifth. It is the very fact of having to pay that makes people reassess their options, as the number of people actually charged can be very small. In Stockholm, 75 per cent of the congestion charges paid by private vehicles come from just over one per cent of residents.

The money raised from smart, fair road pricing would bring in much-needed revenue to TfL which could be spent on improving public transport and conditions for walking and cycling. 

London bus speeds have fallen to below nine miles per hour for the first time ever, and cutting congestion would make bus journeys more reliable – and more popular than the Mayor’s hopper fare has managed. Reducing the volume of vehicles on our roads also has an immediate and substantial health benefit: a report by the Forum of International Respiratory Societies’ Environmental Committee found that the number of air pollution related deaths goes down within weeks. Incidences of asthma attacks, premature births and work and school absenteeism also decrease.

It could also save lives, as roads with less traffic become less dangerous and the number of crashes reduces. Smart, fair road pricing should be part of the Mayor’s Vision Zero transport strategy, with its aim of eradicating road deaths and serious injuries from our roads by 2041.

Finally, reducing traffic on the capital’s roads would also bring down CO2 emissions. We have just ten years to keep global warming within safe levels and we cannot wait any longer before putting a foot on the brake. The next Mayor must be bold enough to take the final step before it is too late. Any mayoral manifesto that doesn’t include smart, fair road pricing is not only not fit for purpose, but also marching us further towards a climate catastrophe. 

Photograph by Omar Jan. Caroline Russell is a Green Party member of the London Assembly and chair of its environment committee. Follow Caroline on Twitter.

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Categories: Comment

3 Comments

  1. Caroline says:

    A very good article. This is what the ULEZ zone (especially when it is expanded to the North and South circular) should have been all along. I have always believed that the ULEZ in its current form as a flat rate is not only hugely unfair on those drivers who only do a tiny number of miles in the zone, or live just within its boundaries and only use their car to drive out of London, it is absolutely NOT going to tackle the pollution problem properly either as it does not provide any proper deterrent to high mileage drivers, particularly of newer cars that nevertheless still pollute (unless they are purely electric), to reduce their car use within the zone. The current scheme basically allows drivers of newer cars who drive a large number of miles daily within the zone to get away with polluting scot-free but punishes in a draconian manner those who drive an older car for only a very few miles or only a few times a month or year at most. To be fair to all drivers, some of whom may not have an alternative choice to driving, and to price pollution properly the ULEZ should ALWAYS have been a per mile solution and it should (as the author above implies) apply to all vehicles, with the charge banding per mile depending on actual vehicle emissions, rather than the extremely blunt instrument of a high flat charge only on certain older vehicles irrespective of the actual usage they make of their cars. It is therefore encouraging to read this article as it sounds like the technology is available now and is being trialled elsewhere on the world to be able to charge in this way and I agree 100% with the author that all the mayoral candidates should commit to looking at this as a fair solution for pollution and traffic control in the city.

  2. A Farrow says:

    “In Stockholm, 75 per cent of the congestion charges paid by private vehicles come from just over one per cent of residents.” Of course – those who can afford not to change their lifestyles.

    The extension of the ULEZ boundary is extremely unpopular, as the petition on change.org which has attracted 113,450 signatures, and climbing, shows. It is unfair and undemocratic. The whole issue needs a huge re-think.

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