Congestion charging in London

… is working nicely, says the Mayor:

Charging ahead

Ken Livingstone

February 16, 2007 2:45 PM

In 2003, congestion charging was introduced in the most clogged-up central area of London against a backdrop of almost universal media scepticism and many gleeful predictions of catastrophe.

Of course the catastrophe didn’t happen. London is now in the position of being the only major city in the world that has achieved a shift to public transport from private car use.

Traffic levels were cut, congestion was reduced and revenue was raised for public transport improvements. The addition of extra public transport prior to the introduction of congestion charging gave commuters an alternative to driving. As a result of the reduction in traffic levels, bus reliability was improved not just in central London but more widely – a huge proportion of bus services pass through the central area at some point on their route.

We were warned that the public transport system wouldn’t cope, the economy would suffer and that traffic would divert into unsuitable streets. Four years on it’s clear these predictions were unfounded.

Like a lie that was half way round the world before the truth had its boots on, the claim that congestion charging has damaged the central London economy is still repeated by those who would have preferred that nothing be done.

In truth, 2006 saw central London outperform the rest of the UK in retail sales. Contrary to the claim that congestion charging would destroy the West End theatre trade, this sector experienced a record year in 2006 on three fronts: number of attendances, ticket revenue, and advance booking revenue.

The reduction in traffic has brought a host of other benefits, including a significant cut in CO2 emissions. It has also made our roads safer. It has contributed to the growth of cycling, with more people than ever before traveling by bike – there has been a 72% increase in the number of cyclists on the capital’s major roads since 2000.

On Monday the zone will be expanding westward, to include parts of Westminster and Hammersmith and Fulham – some of the most congested parts of Britain.

The simplest measure of the scheme is the extent to which it has reduced the number of cars coming into the city. The figures here are stark. Each day in 2006 there are were almost 70,000 fewer vehicles entering the charging zone compared to the number that had been entering each day before charging began. The amount of traffic entering central London during charging hours has been cut by around 20%.

This huge number demonstrates the real impact that the scheme has had. Transport for London analysis suggests that traffic levels in the western extension area will be reduced by 10-15% when the zone goes live next week.

So when we see headlines saying that we are returning to the situation we saw four years ago, it is necessary to dig a bit deeper.

In fact we are not heading back. We have noticed a growth in congestion, not traffic levels. Traffic levels remain down and are projected to fall further after the congestion charge is extended. The growth in congestion correlates with a marked increase in roadworks by utility companies. Much of this work is essential – including the renewal of London’s Victorian water mains system by Thames Water – although there is a significant problem that the transport authorities in London still have no power to regulate what roadworks happen and when.

In 2005 the duration of utilities works was 123% of the level of 2004. In 2006 the duration of utilities works was a massive 191% of those in 2004.

As traffic levels remain down since the introduction of charging, it is not hard to imagine the situation we would be in if the charging system was ever dismantled. It would mean tens of thousands of extra vehicles on London’s streets each day. Without the congestion charge – and with the massive growth in roadworks – London would be at gridlock.

So when former transport minister Steve Norris, who opposed the introduction of the congestion charge and argued for its abolition, reiterates as he did this week that the congestion charging does not work, it shows that in many quarters there is a failure to understand just how necessary it was to take tough decisions to tackle this problem.

There are those who say that the real cause of the growth in congestion is works by Transport for London, and reclaiming of road space for other purposes such as cycle routes, pedestrian crossings and traffic lights. In fact during the same period that utility works rose to nearly twice their previous levels, our works remained at almost totally static levels, as the figures on the Greater London Authority website show.

The majority of bus lanes and other significant road network improvements to the Transport for London road network, such as closing the north terrace of Trafalgar Square, were completed ahead of the introduction of congestion charging.

Just 0.35km of bus lanes were installed within the central Congestion Charging zone during 2006. Since the introduction of the original charging scheme just six new sets of traffic signals/pedestrian crossings have been implemented on behalf of the boroughs by Transport for London inside the zone, and just one on a Transport for London road in the congestion charge zone.

And the utilities’ works are also affecting bus speeds – so public transport users and motorists have a common interest on the matter of road works.

The present road works are a temporary phenomenon, affecting congestion and only made bearable by the congestion charge. But the way we control the level of traffic on the roads is not perfect.

We need the Government to accelerate the completion of regulations that would give powers to Transport for London and the London boroughs to better co-ordinate street works in the city. These regulations, promised under the Traffic Management Act 2004, would replace the current chaotic system of street-works that are adding to congestion. I urge the government to bring these powers forward.

The next stage of the congestion charging will be the move to emissions-based charging. This will enable us to deter the drivers of the most polluting vehicles – such as those in Vehicle Excise Duty Band G – with a much higher daily charge of £25, combined with a better scheme of discounts for lower polluters. Under the proposals now being considered, the residents’ discount for those living inside the zone would be abolished for drivers of Band G cars.

I hope that we can bring this in, following consultation, in 2008. It would not be introduced before the mayoral election that year, giving Londoners a clear choice on whether to proceed.

Despite this work that still needs to be done, the congestion charge continues to deliver for Londoners. It is the main thing that stands between a vibrant, growing city in motion, and a gridlocked city at standstill.

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