London needs to get a lot smarter in its approach to tackling traffic congestion and air pollution according to a new report from the Centre for London think tank, which calls on City Hall to replace existing road user charging systems with a “next generation” digital approach.
A simplified but sophisticated system that charges drivers by the mile instead of the current flat rate and uses an integrated app and website could represent a new “Bazalgette” moment, the report says – a reference to the celebrated Victorian engineer Joseph Bazalgette who created the capital’s sewer system and some of the first underground train tunnels in response to the transport and health concerns of his time.
With London now the most congested city in Western Europe, costing the city economy almost £5 billion a year, air pollution at dangerous levels and an increasingly complex and fragmented charging system, reform for all London’s private and public transport users is overdue, the report argues.
The once pioneering Congestion Charge is no longer stemming traffic growth, and the new Ultra-Low Emission Zone, a welcome intervention, is nevertheless a “blunt tool”, charging a car driving a few metres on a quiet road in the zone the same as a vehicle driving all day on the most congested routes.
The new approach would use digital technology to charge drivers by the mile, with costs varied by vehicle emission levels, local levels of congestion and pollution and the availability of public transport alternatives.
A new app, which the report calls City Move, would integrate charging based on the true impact of individual journeys – the polluter pays principle – with the wider transport system, providing travel information in one place and allowing one-stop payment alongside comparative costs and alternative journey options, ultimately encouraging drivers to leave their cars at home.
As well as tackling congestion and the impact of individual journeys in a fairer way, the system could reduce emissions and air pollution by a further 20 per cent compared to the estimated impact of the newly-introduced Ultra Low Emission Zone, with charges equivalent to the price of a “cup of coffee or a bus ticket”, the report claims.
Income from the scheme would support improved road maintenance, while reduced traffic levels would support business, underpin efforts to make city streets more pleasant and encourage more active lifestyles.
Incentives for sign-up could include partial or full refunds where journeys were delayed longer than expected, cheaper rates for businesses shifting delivery journeys off peak, and “mobility credits” to reward greener travel choices.
The proposals are backed by transport experts, business groups and London’s local authorities.
The report was a “welcome contribution to the debate on road user charging, which can have a positive impact on a city but also needs to keep pace with the changing needs of our residents,” said London Councils transport chair Cllr Julian Bell. “That is why any scheme should use digital innovation and help Londoners make better-informed travel decisions.”
The plan was “the only effective way of making a real difference to London’s transport challenges,” said Living Streets vice-chair Robert Molteno, and a key element in measures to “keep London an attractive place to visit, live and work,” according to Richard Dilks, transport director for business group London First.
With the technology and City Hall implementation powers already available, the reports challenges the London Mayor Sadiq Khan to take the lead and develop options to get the scheme in place by 2024, the end of the next mayoral term.
Read the Centre for London Report, entitled Green Light, via here.