London’s congestion charge is 20 years old. When the zone came into effect, on 17 February 2003, there was fierce opposition from some businesses, parts of the press and politicians on all sides: in a House of Commons debate London Labour MP Mike Gapes called it “madcap” and Conservative Eric Pickles, the then shadow minister for London, insisted that the cause of congestion wasn’t the number of cars on the road but the number of roadworks.
Many predicted traffic chaos on the first day, but a BBC journalist who drove from Croydon on the southern edge of London to Oxford Circus in the centre on that morning reported that it was fine. The objections made at the time seem rather quaint now and the idea of commuting into central London by car sounds bizarre, which perhaps shows the success of the scheme in changing behaviour. Just under a year after the charge started more Londoners were in favour of it than against and Ken Livingstone, who as Mayor of London had staked his political future on the success of the scheme, was re-elected in 2004.
On its own terms, the congestion charge was a success: car journey times within the zone went down and public transport use went up. It helped that Livingstone borrowed against future revenues to pay for bus service improvements before the scheme began, so a good alternative to driving was already in place. Air pollution went down as well. This wasn’t seen as a priority goal at the time, but has become very important for other cities looking to introduce similar schemes.
However, too much motor vehicle traffic remains a problem in central London because some of the fall in private car use has been offset by more taxis and delivery vans. Technology changes have made it easier to order a cab or to get a parcel delivered and policy hasn’t kept up, although there have been some promising changes aimed at reducing the number of delivery vans on the road, many of them led by businesses who don’t want to operate on congested streets.
Since the congestion charge came in London has added several more charges on lorries and private cars. The next, due in August, is the further expansion of the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) from inner London to cover the whole city. The ULEZ so far has proved less contentious than many expected – as with the congestion charge, chaos was predicted and didn’t happen and air pollution campaigners convinced many people of the need for change. But the latest expansion is proving trickier, with hard questions raised about the impact on low income families in areas with poor public transport links.
Part of the problem with all these schemes is that many of those affected are charged a flat rate as soon as they cross a boundary line to enter the charging zone in question. The cost can seem quite reasonable if you’re going to drive around all day within the zone, but far less so if you’ve driven into it solely to take your mum to the doctor and back.
By the time the congestion charge turns 30 in 2033 it seems inevitable that London – and probably the whole of the UK- will have some sort of more sophisticated, distance-based road charging, with people paying according to how far they drive rather than which boundaries they cross.
Central government might not care much about carbon or pollution, but it does care about money and will need a way to replace what is currently raised through fuel duty once most cars are electric-powered. But that in itself will raise a lot of questions about how much people pay, for what type of vehicle, and who gets a pass or a discount. Expect that to be the next big driving controversy.
Claire Harding is research director of think tank Centre for London. Photograph by Omar Jan.
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