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.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.