Caroline Russell: We need an honest conversation about who pays for transport in London

Caroline Russell: We need an honest conversation about who pays for transport in London

A new funding deal was announced on Sunday morning that provides support from the government to keep Transport for London (TfL) safely managing our transport network through the coronavirus crisis until 31 March 2020. When the current Prime Minister was Mayor of London, TfL was part-funded by a government grant, but he signed that away in 2015 and it seems clear it won’t be coming back. TfL now needs a new funding model, and it must be fairer than relying on ever-increasing bus and Tube fares and Council Tax hikes.

The deal follows weeks of worrying speculation about removal of free travel for younger and older people, and with government and Mayor alike seizing on ideas to grab attention in the press, such as “driverless” Tube trains and vastly expanding the Congestion Charge zone. Now, on the eve of a new national lockdown, the immediate threat to TfL’s viability has been removed. But the government and the Mayor must now work together to put TfL’s finances on a resilient, long-term footing. We urgently need an honest conversation with Londoners about who pays for transport in the capital.

The idea of expanding the Congestion Charge zone to the North and South Circular roads was never a serious proposal from government. It was a negotiation tactic that backfired and gave the Mayor a policy to push back on. It was, however, revealing to hear the way other politicians opposed it, with many worried about the cost of short car journeys, rather than their impact. Short car journeys are the easiest to shift to walking, cycling and public transport, but there are smarter ways to reduce short car trips that can apply London-wide, rather than just in a specific area.

If the Mayor had listened to me and my London Assembly colleague Sian Berry four years ago, a smart, fair, privacy-friendly road pricing scheme would already be up and running. People driving, all over London, would be covering the cost of road maintenance and contributing to the wider transport system. Despite years of cross-party demands, London still sees no income from Vehicle Excise Duty paid by the capital’s drivers. It’s not fair that people travelling by bus and Tube are meeting the cost of fixing potholes in London, while people who drive aren’t paying their share.

Car, van and truck drivers need to start chipping into the cost of keeping our city moving. This would also help cut traffic, reducing congestion, pollution and road danger. The Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) will expand to the North and South Circulars in October 2021. However, this scheme is aimed at cleaning up the vehicles in our city and does not tackle miles driven.

Road user charging is the solution to cutting traffic miles, but an area-based charge, as we have in Central London since 2003, won’t scale up to a dramatically larger area as people could then pay and drive around all day across much of London. This is why we urgently need a road user charging system that takes account of miles driven, time of day, vehicle emissions and even vehicle weight. With a smart, fair, data privacy-friendly scheme all this can be accounted for, along with availability, or not, of public transport alternatives. The Mayor must bring forward a study of road pricing urgently, as Sian and I have called on him to do since the 2016 election.

While the new funding deal stops TfL going under financially, it still leaves massive cuts in place. Most of the existing TfL budget has been paused, after an emergency successor to it was adopted in the spring. That means refurbishment works and step-free access are being delayed. It also means that work on the Healthy Streets programme for providing safe and accessible streets to walk and cycle on has lost half its budget. The new deal requires TfL to invest at least a further £70 million in Streetspace schemes, delivered by TfL and the boroughs. However, although added to an earlier £80 million, this still amounts to less than half of the funding that was expected during this year.

I have called on the Mayor to ensure the quality of schemes improves, especially to ensure that we are creating more inclusive streets. With public transport continuing to be at reduced capacity and with the further national lockdown, Londoners – especially older, younger and disabled people – need safe places to walk and cycle in more than ever.

We’re now nearly eight months into this pandemic affecting our daily lives, and eight months closer to the 2030 target for London to be carbon neutral. Lurching from one financial crisis to another is no way to run a city transport system. The government must stand behind Transport for London and the Mayor must talk honestly and openly with Londoners about the need for major changes in the way we all get around. To achieve this, the Mayor must develop deliverable plans for smart, fair, privacy friendly road pricing along with a rapid roll out of Streetspace measures, so that the recovery can be green and pleasant, not congested and polluted.

Caroline Russell is a Green Party London Assembly Member. Follow Caroline on Twitter. exists to provide fair and thorough coverage of the UK capital’s politics, development and culture. It depends greatly on donations from readers. Give £5 a month or £50 a year and you will receive the On London Extra Thursday email, which rounds up London news, views and information from a wide range of sources. Click here to donate directly or contact for bank account details. Thanks.

Categories: Comment


  1. Public transport should be free in London.
    I am embarking on a PhD at the UCL on the impact that free public transport would have on urban planning and life.
    There are numerous cities in the world that have free public transport. Tallinn and Luxemburg among them. It will also be also interesting to ponder over how this idea would mesh with the prospect of Universal Basic Income for all, and how it all would shape our cities. Happy to hear from all parties that have a rational contribution to make on these matters.
    Cezary M Bednarski

    1. Pat says:

      Not free but ridiculously cheap, Sheffield tried a very low cost bus system in the late ’70s. The self styled ‘Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’ charged 5p per journey, haemorrhaged money during the meltdown of its money losing steel and engineering industries and had to stop the scheme. Pretty much the outcome everywhere of below cost and unaffordable subsidy systems. Someone has to pay and the benefits are always inflated with non monetary fantasy values to justify it.

      1. Cezary Bednarski says:

        There are some 100 cities and towns in the world that run free at the point of use public transport ( including the USA and Poland, of all places…). This is only possible if joined up thinking, cross-silo cost maths are engaged, and the ultimate aim is social justice and public wellbeing. Not easy to get your head around this, but if NHS is used as parallel this should make it easier ( NHS before the Torons ( Tory + Moron ) started to dismantle it and farm out its parts to cost inefficient exclusively profit-driven subcontractors )

  2. JRichards says:

    Both Caroline Russel and Cezary Bednarski are right. And while people are driving around in vehicles, polluting our streets, and our homes, they should also be contributing to NHS costs of the noise and airpollution on our health. Adults and children suffer from a range of negative health impacts from tyres and engines, and in the most polluted areas children’s lung development is affected, so they will no doubt have problems during adult years as well, even after pollution is lowered. Any tax paid by vehicle drivers should come with notification that explains where the tax is going, NHS, whatever, just to remind them of the consequences of vehicle use.
    Local councils should have a clear responsibility for ensuring that their policies and practices ensure clean air for their residents and workers in the borough. In the centre of London, traffic and pollution is essentially dumped into residential side streets in order that short-term shopping visitors breath cleaner air on nearby retail roads. This should not be allowed. Councils could do a lot more to ensusre clean air, but won’t unless they are forced to do so.

  3. Chris says:

    “Car drivers…need to start chipping into the cost of keeping our city moving”?
    They do! They already pay 500 million quid a year in VED. The fact the Tories have mandated that that money should not be spent in London is not the drivers’ fault!

    In addition there is the congestion charge and ULEZ.

    Have you thought about a charge that stops people commuting in from Kent, Essex and the like?

    And please tell me how much cyclists are paying for their lanes, many of which are hardly used?

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