London congestion charge has been a huge success. It’s time to change it

A sign marking the edge of the congestion charge zone. Image: Getty.

It has been 15 years since London’s congestion charge was introduced by the city’s first mayor, Ken Livingstone. Livingstone hoped the charge would reduce congestion, radically improve bus services, make journey times more consistent for drivers and make increase efficiency for those distributing goods and services throughout the city.

Key measures show it has been a success: in 2006, Transport for London (TfL) reported that the charge reduced traffic by 15 per cent and congestion – that is, the extra time a trip would take because of traffic – by 30 per cent. This effect has continued to today. Traffic volumes in the charging zone are now nearly a quarter lower than a decade ago, allowing central London road space to be given over to cyclists and pedestrians.

Congestion charging zone in Central London. Image: Transport for London.

The charge covers a 21km² area in London. It’s a simple system: if you enter the zone between 7am and 6pm on a weekday, you pay a flat daily rate. The charge has risen gradually from £5 in 2003 to £11.50 today. Residents receive a 90 per cent discount and registered disabled people can travel for free. Emergency services, motorcycles, taxis and minicabs are exempt.

Recipe for success

Today, city leaders in places such as New York are facing resistance, as they consider introducing their own congestion charge in the urban core. But the same thing happened in London, 15 years ago: notable push-back came from Westminster Council, which took the issue to court, claiming it would cut residents off from education and healthcare services, but lost. If it weren’t for the 1999 law which centralised certain powers to the mayor, the charge may not have been realised at all.

London’s congestion charge succeeded for two key reasons: it had a clear and convincing premise, and it was just one part of larger efforts to improve travel across all forms of transport in the city. The case for congestion charging was simple: the charge would reduce traffic in the city centre and generate funds to reinvest in improving public transport services.

On the day the congestion charge was introduced in London, 300 extra buses were added to the Central London bus network to give people an alternative to driving and avert the anticipated mayhem. One year later, Livingstone reported that 29,000 more passengers had entered the charging zone by bus during the morning rush hour, compared to a year before. Between 2002 and 2014, the number of private cars coming into the zone fell by 39 per cent.

Getting busy

But while car numbers are down, the number of private for hire vehicles – your minicabs and Ubers – is up. Trips by taxi and private for hire vehicle as the main mode of the journey increased by 9.8 per cent between 2015 and 2016 alone – and 29.2 per cent since 2000. Today, more than 18,000 different private hire vehicles enter the congestion charging zone each day, with peaks on Friday and Saturday nights.

This has reduced the speed of traffic through the city centre, which in turn has affected the bus network. City Hall investigated and concluded that traffic congestion was the primary reason why bus usage was down in London: the slower the speed along bus routes, the greater the fall in passenger numbers.

Breakdown of revenue collected each year from the congestion charge, and the net income after costs accounted for. Image: author created from Transport for London Statements of Accounts and Annual reports for years 2003 to 2017.

Taxis and minicabs are exempt from paying the congestion charge, presenting a further, financial challenge for TfL. While minicab registrations have soared from 49,854 in 2013 to 87,409 in 2017, the income from the congestion charge has flat-lined. Last year, TfL registered its first drop in congestion charge income since 2010.

Stockholm solution

Now, authorities are looking abroad for solutions. Inspired by cities such as Stockholm, the London Assembly (the city’s government scrutiny body) has recommended extending the congestion charging zone and replacing the daily flat rate with a charging structure which would reflect when and where drivers enter the zone and how much time they spend there. In Stockholm, the zone covers 35km², capturing two-thirds of the city’s residents in a scheme with varying charge levels depending on the time of the day – the maximum daily charge does not exceed 105 Swedish Krona (about £9.20).

The London Assembly also recommended devolving the national vehicle exercise duty (an annual charge for private vehicle ownership, based how polluting the vehicle is) to the Mayor of London’s office. This would give city leaders another means to encourage sustainable travel.

In his 2018 Transport Strategy, Sadiq Khan – London’s current mayor – aims to have four out of every five trips through the city made by public transport, cycling or walking by 2040 – up from two-thirds today. The congestion charge will be kept under review, but the strategy hints that it could be merged with the city’s Low Emission and Ultra Low Emission Zones (the latter is set to start in 2019), which offer cheaper rates for low-emission vehicles, to help tackle air pollution.

Khan and TfL have a huge budget hole to fill, having lost their £700m a year operational grant from national government. Khan’s manifesto pledge to freeze fares will cost £640m over his term, and at the same time passenger numbers and fare revenues are down £240m. A reformed congestion charge could not only ease traffic – it could provide a much-needed new revenue stream for TfL. The mayor also seems to be investigating ending the exemption for minicabs.

The ConversationAfter 15 years of operation, London’s congestion charge can be celebrated as a success. It has set the bar for other cities – demonstrating that road pricing can only be successful as part of strategy that offers efficient, sustainable alternatives for car drivers. Looking ahead, the congestion charge needs reform to meet the financial and logistical challenge of providing a good transport system for Londoners.

Nicole Badstuber, Researcher in Urban Transport Governance at the Centre for Transport Studies, UCL.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Why doesn’t London build an RER network, like Paris did?

A commuter walking by a map of the RER B line at the Chatelet-Les Halles station in Paris. Image: Getty.

I’ve heard many people make many different complaints about the Parisian transport system. That it does a bad job of linking a rich, white city with its poorer, more diverse suburbs. That, even as subway systems go, it’s a hostile environment for women. That the whole thing smells distractingly of urine.

I’m familiar with all of these complaints – I’ve often smelt the urine. And I’m aware that, in many ways, London’s is the superior transport network.

And yet I can’t help be jealous of Paris – In large part, because of the RER.

Central Paris. The Metro lines are thinner, and in pastel shades; the RER lines are thicker, and in brighter colours. Image: RATP.

Paris, you see, has not one but two underground railway systems. The more famous one is the original Paris Metro, opened in 1900: that’s the one with those fancy green portals with the word “metropolitain” written above them in a vaguely kooky font.

The Metro, though, mostly serves Paris Intra-muros: the official city, inside the Boulevard Périphérique ring road, site of the city’s last set of walls. As a result, it’s of very little use in most of the city’s suburbs. Its stations are very close together, which places a limit on how fast its trains can cross town. It was also, by the mid 20th century, becoming annoyingly overcrowded.

So starting in the 1960s, the city transport authorities began planning a second underground railway network. The Réseau Express Régional – Regional Express Network – would link suburban lines on either side of Paris, through new heavy rail tunnels beneath the city. Its stations would be much further apart than those of the metro – roughly one every 3km, rather than every 600m – so its trains can run faster.

And fifty years and five lines later, it means that 224 stations in the suburbs of Paris are served by trains which, rather than terminating on the edge of the city, now continue directly through tunnels to its centre.

The RER network today. Image: RATP.

London is, belatedly, doing something similar. The Elizabeth Line, due to open in stages from later this year, will offer express-tube style services linking the suburban lines which run west from Paddington to those which run east from Liverpool Street. And Thameslink has offered cross-town services for 30 years now (albeit not at tube-level frequencies). That, too, is going to add more routes to its network over the next few years, meaning direct trains from the southern suburbs to north London and vice versa.

Yet the vast majority of suburban National Rail services in London still terminate at big mainline stations, most of which are on the edge of the centre. For many journeys, especially from the south of the city, you still need to change to the London Underground.

So, could London ape Paris – and make Thameslink and Crossrail the first element of its own RER network?

In a limited way, of course, it’s doing just that. The next big project after Crossrail is likely to be (original name, this) Crossrail 2. If that gets funding, it’ll be a new south-west to north-east route, connecting some of the suburban lines into Waterloo to those in the Lea Valley.

The proposed route of Crossrail 2. Click to expand.

But it’s not immediately obvious where you could go next – what Crossails 3, 4 or 5 should cover.

That’s because there’s an imbalance in the distribution of the remaining mainline rail services in London. Anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the geography of the city will know that there are far more tube lines to its north. But the corollary of that is that there are far more mainlines to the south.

To usefully absorb some of those, Crossrail 3 would probably need to run south to south in some way. There is actually an obvious way of doing this: build a new tunnel from roughly Battersea to roughly Bermondsey, and take over the Richmond lines in the west and North Kent lines in the east, as a sort of London equivalent of RER C:

Our suggestion for Crossrail 3. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

But that still leaves a whole load of lines in south and south east London with nowhere to send them beyond their current terminal stations.

In fact, there are reasons for thinking that the whole RER concept doesn’t really fit the British capital. It was designed, remember, for a city in which the Metro only served the centre (roughly equivalent of London’s zones 1 & 2).

But London Underground wasn’t like that. From very early in its history, it served outer London too: it was not just a way of getting people around the centre, but for getting them there from their suburban homes too.

This is turn is at least in part a function of the economic geography of the two cities. Rich Parisians have generally wanted to live in the centre, pushing poorer people out to the banlieues. In London, though, the suburbs were where the good life was to be found.

To that end, the original operators of some lines weren’t just railway companies, but housing developers, too. The Metropolitan Railway effectively built large chunks of north west London (“Metroland”), partly to guarantee the market for its trains, but partly too because, well, housing is profitable.

In other parts of town, existing main line railways were simply added to the new underground lines. The Central line swallowed routes originally built by the Great Western Railway and London & North Eastern Railway. The District line absorbed part of the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway.

At any rate: the Tube was playing the same role as the RER as early as the 1930s. London could still benefit from some RER-type services, so hopefully the Elizbaeth Line won’t be the last. But it doesn’t need an entire second metro network in the way 1960s Paris did.

There is another idea we could more profitably steal from Paris. Those suburban railways which aren’t connected to the RER are still run by the national rail operator, SNCF. But it uses the Transilien brand name, to mark them out as a part of the Parisian transport network, and – as with the RER – each route has its own letter and its own colour.

The Transilien & RER networks in Paris. Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker/Wikimedia Commons.

This would not have the transformative effect on London that building another half a dozen Crossrails would. But it would make the network much easier to navigate, and would be almost infinitely cheaper. Perhaps we should be starting there.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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