Claire Harding: Twenty years since London’s congestion charge began, road-user charging is still the future

Claire Harding: Twenty years since London’s congestion charge began, road-user charging is still the future

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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Categories: Comment


  1. Peter Lefebve says:

    To comment on the ULEZ expansion due in August. As always, it’s the average hard working people who are effected the most. Like the majority of us who have full time jobs to just afford to keep our heads above water.

    The last thing we can afford is a new car, but will have to pay the charge each day just to go to work. I live outside the expanding ULEZ but work inside it. I can’t get any help though the scrappage scheme as I do not live within the zone. Even if I did, I don’t get any handouts from the government so not eligible for another.

    So, could you please explain how me paying the the daily charge is going to help the environment??? Please do not answer by saying that it will go towards improving public transport. Public transport is just not an option for me or most of us who live outside the London Borough.
    I would prefer, if you could just admit that it is just another unfair tax on the average hard working person.

    1. Damian says:

      You (and I) are exactly who the mayor is targeting. He can raise revenue from people who have no say in his election.

      What makes me smile is my 2.2 litre diesel guzzling 4×4 is permitted, even though it struggles to get more than 30 mpg. My little run around fiesta, with road tax at zero because its environmentally friendly and does 70mpg, pays the charge.

      And once they expand the zone, where I used to always use Dartford now I will be able to go back to Blackwall tunnel. So it will increase traffic in central London.

      Its genius through and through

  2. Ed says:

    Road user charging is absolutely the way forward but govt seems to be asleep at the wheel regarding it, if the fuel duty freeze for the past 13 years is anything to go by. Intelligent road user charging would be a lot ‘fairer’ than a flat rate applied congestion charge, it would help manage peaks in demand by charging a surge rate at rush hours, it would disincentivise shorter trips. In short it would be fantastic. If I were a mayor of a major city region I’d try to get ahead of the centre on road user charging so I could keep the revenues before a national scheme comes in.

  3. MilesT says:

    The ULEZ expansion will have the right outcomes, but is being implemented the wrong way to mitigate the undoubted impacts. Ultimately reducing the amount of driving in the zone will make the experience for those who have to drive (and for buses) better, over time.

    Improved public transport before the expansion (per original CC)? Nope. Most of the Superloop (which is vary limited improvement) will come after the ULEZ expansion is live, by at least a year.

    Too hard edged a boundary (time and geography) for mitigating compensation.

    No concept of someone who only needs occasional access (which should be at zero or reduced costs) vs. heavy users who generate more of the pollution being encouraged to change (although gas cookers and gas heating also generates a lot of emissions too).

    My suggestions for a better scheme:
    * People who have a non-compliant car registered within the zone or 15 miles outside allowed a few “free days” per month (rolling forward for up to 12 months), granted free days reducing over time (up to maybe 10 years or until vehicle enters heritage exempt category). Commercial vehicles excluded, and maybe heavier vehicles get fewer free days.
    * People who have a non-compliant car ditto allowed to “bank” their ULEZ fees, for their current vehicles only. They can reclaim their banked amount (maybe with some interest) when the vehicle is scrapped (properly scrapped, not sold), to become a deposit on a compliant replacement (or a season ticket, or moving fees to live elsewhere in the world). NB: banked fund access if the vehicle drops into the “heritage” exempt category before being scrapped. Maybe heavier vehicles get to bank less of the fee.
    * Heritage exempt vehicles also to be limited to a number of free days per year, to prevent them becoming “daily drivers”

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