When will London adopt pay-as-you-go road pricing?

Road pricing in London, the old-fashioned way. Image: Getty.

On 21 June, Sadiq Khan, published a draft of the Mayor's Transport Strategy, and some newspaper editors got very excited. The Sun’s headline claimed “London motorists will pay-as-you-go and won’t have anywhere to park”; the Times was more measured with “Drivers in London face first pay-as-you-go road charge”.  

Unfortunately, neither of these headlines are entirely accurate. So what’s really being mooted in the draft strategy and what might it mean?

What does the Mayor’s Strategy actually say?

Firstly, it subtly states that the mayor will keep “existing and planned road user charging schemes under review”. This refers to the existing Congestion Charge, future Ultra Low Emission Zone and other tolls in the Mayor’s gift.

This is probably an acknowledgement that the congestion charge in 2017 is struggling to deliver the same benefits it did back in 2003. Be it because of advances in technology (for example, the sharp rise in private hire cars­) or consumer behaviour (online shopping and services pushing up van and light goods traffic), traffic has risen again, causing all sorts of difficulty for the capital.

Secondly, it nods to what might replace the Congestion Charge, and says the mayor will ”give consideration” to the development of road user charging. Crucially, it doesn’t say the mayor will develop it, but that he will consider it – and that any scheme would be one that “reflects distance, time, emissions, road danger and other factors in an integrated way”.

Lastly and perhaps most interestingly, it outlines proposals to support London’s boroughs in developing their own schemes, either for parking levies or road user charging. The text here suggests that, rather than some grand London-wide scheme, we could begin to see small scale parking levies or charges in pockets of London. If boroughs are bold enough, these could serve as test beds for what might follow across London.

As a statement of intent, the strategy is very welcome. But the caveated wording equally means it might never happen.


How far off is road charging?

At Sustrans, we have long argued for road pricing and supported the London Assembly, the elected members that scrutinise the mayor, in making the case for it. But in 2008, the UK government backed down from its road pricing plans due to a sizeable petition and a referendum in Manchester which sealed its fate. The London mayor clearly has an eye on recent history.

A change to taxation is always a politically difficult sell, but Londoners might well be ready for it. There’s a trend of declining car ownership (43 per cent of London households do not have access to a car) and an increasing evidence base of the harm to human health from air pollution.

The majority of Londoners travel by public transport, walking or cycling, and there’s strong support for gaining more cycle tracks and reclaiming public space from traffic. Match this with business complaints over the difficulties of London’s congestion, and you have an environment conducive to a big and bold solution such as road user charging.

Our relationship with cars and vehicles could soon change completely. The traditional model of direct and exclusive ownership is being disrupted through on demand options and shared ownership. The ever imminent launch of autonomous vehicles is also unchartered territory, with unknown implications for how we will use motorised vehicles in the future.

Road pricing already is one of the few tools with enough influence to genuinely manage congestion, while remodelling London’s streets around walking and cycling. And in a world of potentially cheap, easy and convenient motor vehicles, road pricing could become a necessity.

Nicholas Sanderson is London policy officer at Sustrans, on whose blog this originally appeared.

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You’ve heard of trainspotters and planespotters. Now meet Britain’s growing army of busspotters

Some busspotters in action. Image: Damian Potter.

In the summer of 2014, with too much time on my hands and too little to do, I found myself in the middle of an incredibly active, 200+ person Facebook group. How I ended up here (record scratch, freeze frame) is a little too convoluted and stupid to explain – but what I found was a world that I a) could not have imagined nor b) had any clue even existed.

The group I tumbled into was what I now understand to be a very, very small example of a “busspotting” group – that is, a Facebook group full of dedicated bus enthusiasts which exists to share pictures of buses they see on the road. This group had members from all over the country, with a concentration on northern buses, and was predominantly filled with young, white men.

What I expected to see was a range over relatively interesting buses, holding some significance or another, that were tough to find in your average day-to-day life. This was, largely, not the case. What fascinated me was that the vast majority of the group was not focused on unique buses, new buses, historically significant buses, and so on – but simply on the average bus and or bus route you might take just to get around your city.

What was even more bizarre to me was that people from across the country were meeting up in small towns (Morpeth, Livingston, Stevenage) to take seemingly mundane bus rides to other equally small places (Washington, Gloucester, Grimsby). The busspotters would travel hours on end to meet at these locations simply to ride this bus, often for three or four hours, and experience a bus route they’d never been on before or one that they just particularly enjoyed.

Ooooh. Image: Damian Potter.

After a couple of weeks of silently watching and one semi-ironic post, I left the group. And, for the next three years, I gave barely a thought to bus enthusiasm, as no busspotter group/page/person crossed my path. Unlike similar enthusiasms like planespotting and trainspotting, it didn’t seem to me that busspotting had any significant following.

But, as is the way of these things, a weird thread on Twitter three summers later sparked my memory of my short time in this group. I wanted to see what busspotting was actually and about and if, in fact, it was still a thing.

So I spoke to Damian Potter, an admin on several popular busspotting groups, about what it’s like to be deep into the busspotting scene.

“I used to sit upstairs on double decker buses and 'drive' them, including the pedal movements!” Damian announced right off the bat, speaking of his childhood. “I've been driving coaches at home and abroad since I passed my PCV test in 1994. I've been driving for Transdev Harrogate and District Travel since 1998.”

Damian, as you might have gathered, has been a busspotter since his early youth. Now, at the age of 50, he manages four different busspotting Facebook groupsm, mostly based around the Harrogate area (Transdev Enthusiasts, The Harrogate Bus Company, iTransport Worldwide and Spotting Bus and Coach Spotters). Some of them have over a thousand members.

He also participates in busspotting IRL, travelling around the country participating in busspotting meet-ups and events and co-organising trips along different bus routes. When I asked him what busspotting was to him, he explained that it can manifest in different ways: some people focus on makes of bus and routes, other focus on particular bus companies (National Express is particularly popular). Of course, bus enthusiasm is not solely a British phenomenon, but busspotters can certainly be found in practically every corner of the UK.

“People tend to think that spotters hang around bus stations furtively, with a camera and some curly cheese sandwiches, but this isn't really the case,” Damian continued. That said, he also mentioned some particularly hardcore bus nuts who have been known to trespass on company premises to be the first to snap a picture of a new bus.

“They really do produce some brilliant pictures, though,” he added.


Although much of busspotting culture happens online, predominantly on Facebook, groups often have what are called ‘running days’ which involve meet ups having to do with particular routes. Damian mentioned one particularly popular day following the London Routemaster buses that happen periodically. Not only do these routes draw in enthusiasts, he noted, but also draw huge numbers of tourists who want to claim they’ve ridden on the original London buses.

“I reckon the general public miss the old Routemaster buses. There is only one 'heritage' route in London which still uses Routemaster buses and that's the 15 service between Trafalgar Square and Tower Hill.”

Despite this widespread interest in buses and bus history, though, busspotters often find themselves treated as the lesser of the motor enthusiasts. This became clear to me almost immediately when speaking to Damian, and continued to strike me throughout our conversation; without my saying anything sarcastic, malicious, or snarky, he became instantly defensive of his fellow enthusiasts and of his hobby.

When I asked him why he felt this immediate need to defend busspotting, he explained that people often ridicule busspotters and bus enthusiasm generally, arguing that bus drivers are the most common attackers. “However,” he noted, “if I bring a load of pictures into the canteen they're the first to crowd around to see bus pictures...”

Aaah. Image: Damian Potter.

Despite being perceived as an often-mocked hobby, bus enthusiasm is expanding rapidly, Damien claims. “The bus enthusiast culture is growing, with younger generations getting more involved.” Drawing in new, younger enthusiasts has become easier thanks to social media, as has creating real personal connections. Social media has made it easier for bus enthusiasm to not just stay afloat, but actually thrive over the last several years.

It’s so widespread, in fact, that a national competition is held every year in Blackpool to mark Bus Driver of the Year (Damian himself came in 34th out of 155 back in 2002). This event draws in everyone from the bus world – drivers, manufacturers, tour companies, and enthusiasts alike. Here is one of the many places where great friendships are forged and busspotters who’ve only known each other online can finally meet face-to-face. “Personally I have made some great friends through Facebook,” Damian told me. “I have even stayed over at a friend's house in London a couple of times.”

Busspotting may be less well-known than motor enthusiasms like planespotting and trainspotting, but that very well could change. Thanks to active social media groups and regular in-person meet-ups, people have been able to use busspotting forums as not only a way to find lifelong friends, but also spend more of their free time exploring their hobby with the people they’ve met through these groups and pages who share their enthusiasm. For all the flack it may receive, the future of busspotting looks bright.

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