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.

 
 
 
 

“A story of incompetence, arrogance, privilege and power”: A brief history of the Garden Bridge

Ewwww. Image: Heatherwick.

Labour assembly member Tom Copley on a an ignominious history.

The publication last week of the final bill for Boris Johnson’s failed Garden Bridge has once again pushed this fiasco into the headlines.

As well as an eye-watering £43m bill for taxpayers for this Johnsonian indulgence, what has been revealed this week is astonishing profligacy by the arms-length vehicle established to deliver it: the Garden Bridge Trust. The line by line account of their spending reveals £161,000 spent on their website and £400,000 on a gala fundraising event, amongst many other eyebrow raising numbers. 

Bear in mind that back in 2012, Johnson promised that the bridge would be entirely privately funded. The bridge’s most ardent advocate, Joanna Lumley, called it a “tiara for the Thames” and “a gift for London”. Today, the project would seem the very opposite of a “gift”.

The London Assembly has been scrutinising this project since its inception, and I now chair a working group tasked with continuing our investigation. We are indebted to the work of local campaigners around Waterloo as well as Will Hurst of the Architects Journal, who has brought many of the scandals surrounding the project into the open, and who was the subject of an extraordinary public attack by Johnson for doing so.

Yet every revelation about this cursed project has thrown up more questions than it has answers, and it’s worth reminding ourselves just how shady and rotten the story of this project has been.

There was Johnson’s £10,000 taxpayer funded trip to San Francisco to drum up sponsorship for the Thomas Heatherwick garden bridge design, despite the fact that TfL had not at that point even tendered for a designer for the project.

The design contest itself was a sham, with one of the two other architects TfL begged to enter in an attempt to create the illusion of due process later saying they felt “used”. Heatherwick Studios was awarded the contract and made a total of £2.7m from taxpayers from the failed project.


Soon after the bridge’s engineering contract had been awarded to Arup, it was announced that TfL’s then managing director of planning, Richard de Cani, was departing TfL for a new job – at Arup. He continued to make key decisions relating to the project while working his notice period, a flagrant conflict of interest that wouldn’t have been allowed in the civil service. Arup received more than £13m of taxpayer cash from the failed project.

The tendering process attracted such concern that the then Transport Commissioner, Peter Hendy, ordered an internal audit of it. The resulting report was a whitewash, and a far more critical earlier draft was leaked to the London Assembly.

As concerns about the project grew, so did the interventions by the bridge’s powerful advocates to keep it on track. Boris Johnson signed a mayoral direction which watered down the conditions the Garden Bridge Trust had to meet in order to gain access to further public money, exposing taxpayers to further risk. When he was hauled in front of the London Assembly to explain this decision, after blustering for while he finally told me that he couldn’t remember.

David Cameron overruled the advice of senior civil servants in order to extend the project’s government credit line. And George Osborne was at one point even more keen on the Garden Bridge than Johnson himself. The then chancellor was criticised by the National Audit Office for bypassing usual channels in order to commit funding to it. Strangely, none of the project’s travails have made it onto the pages of the London Evening Standard, a paper he now edits. Nor did they under his predecessor Sarah Sands, now editor of the Today Programme, another firm advocate for the Garden Bridge.

By 2016 the project appeared to be in real trouble. Yet the Garden Bridge Trust ploughed ahead in the face of mounting risks. In February 2016, despite having not secured the land on the south bank to actually build the bridge on, nor satisfied all their planning consents, the Trust signed an engineering contract. That decision alone has cost the taxpayer £21m.

Minutes of the Trust’s board meetings that I secured from TfL (after much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Trust itself) reveal that weeks beforehand Thomas Heatherwick had urged the trustees to sign the contract in order to demonstrate “momentum”.

Meanwhile TfL, which was represented at board meetings by Richard de Cani and so should’ve been well aware of the mounting risks to the project, astonishingly failed to act in interests of taxpayers by shutting the project down.

Indeed, TfL allowed further public money to be released for the project despite the Trust not having satisfied at least two of the six conditions that had been set by TfL in order to protect the public purse. The decision to approve funding was personally approved by Transport Commissioner Mike Brown, who has never provided an adequate explanation for his decision.

The story of the Garden Bridge project is one of incompetence, arrogance and recklessness, but also of privilege and power. This was “the great and the good” trying to rig the system to force upon London a plaything for themselves wrapped up as a gift.

The London Assembly is determined to hold those responsible to account, and we will particularly focus on TfL’s role in this mess. However, this is not just a London issue, but a national scandal. There is a growing case for a Parliamentary inquiry into the project, and I would urge the Public Accounts Committee to launch an investigation. 

The Garden Bridge may seem like small beer compared to Brexit. But there is a common thread: Boris Johnson. It should appal and outrage us that this man is still being talked about as a potential future Prime Minister. His most expensive vanity project, now dead in the water, perhaps serves as an unwelcome prophecy for what may be to come should he ever enter Number 10.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.