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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What’s up with Wakanda’s trains? On public transport in Black Panther

The Black Panther promotional poster. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Black Panther is one of the best reviewed superhero films of all time. It’s instantly become a cultural touchstone for black representation in movies, while shining a positive light on a continent almost totally ignored by Hollywood. But never mind all that – what about the trains?

The film takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a small, technologically advanced nation whose power comes from its main natural resource: huge supplies of a magical metal called vibranium. As is often the case in sci-fi, “technologically advanced” here means “full of skyscrapers and trains”. In other words, perfect Citymetric territory.

Here’s a mostly spoiler-free guide to Black Panther’s urbanism and transport.

City planning

It’s to the credit of Black Panther’s crew that there’s anything to talk about here at all. Fictional cities in previous Marvel films, such as Asgard from the Thor films or Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces.

Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city.

It’s almost a real city. Image: Marvel/Disney

We only really see one area close-up: Steptown, which according to designer Ruth Carter is the city’s hipster district. How the Golden City ended up with a bohemian area is never explained. In many cities, these formed where immigrants, artists and students arrived to take advantage of lower rents, but this seems unlikely with Wakanda’s stable economy and zero migration. Did the Golden City gentrify?

Urban transport

When we get out and about, things get a bit weirder. The narrow pedestrianised sand-paved street is crowded and lined with market stalls on both sides, yet a futuristic tram runs right down the middle. The tram’s resemblance to the chunky San Francisco BART trains is not a coincidence – director Ryan Coogler is from Oakland.

Steptown Streetcar, with a hyperloop train passing overhead. Image: Marvel/Disney.

People have to dodge around the tram, and the street is far too narrow for a second tram to pass the other way. This could be a single-track shuttle (like the former Southport Pier Tram), a one-way loop (like the Detroit People Mover) or a diversion through narrow streets (like the Dublin Luas Cross City extension). But no matter what, it’s a slow and inefficient way to get people around a major city. Hopefully there’s an underground station lurking somewhere out of shot.


Over the street runs a *shudder* hyperloop. If you’re concerned that Elon Musk’s scheme has made its way to Wakanda, don’t worry – this train bears no resemblance to Musk’s design. Rather, it’s a flying train that levitates between hoops in the open air. It travels very fast – too fast for urban transport, since it crosses a whole neighbourhood in a couple of seconds – and it doesn’t seem to have many stops, even at logical interchange points where the lines cross. Its main purpose is probably to bring people from outlying suburbs into the centre quickly.

There’s one other urban transport system seen in the film: as befitting a major riverside city, it has a ferry or waterbus system. We get a good look at the barges carrying tribal leaders to the ceremonial waterfalls, but overhead shots show other boats on the more mundane business of shuttling people up and down the river.

Transport outside the city

Unfortunately there’s less to say here. Away from the city, we only see people riding horses, following cattle-drawn sleds, or simply walking long distances. This is understandable given Wakanda’s masquerading as a developing country, but it makes the country very urban centric. Perhaps that’s why the Jabari hate the other tribes so much – poor transport investment means the only way to reach them is a narrow, winding mountain pass.

The one exception is in freight transport. Wakanda has a ridiculously developed maglev network for transporting vibranium ore. This actually follows a pattern seen in a lot of real African countries: take a look at a map of the continent and you’ll see most railways run to the coast.

Image: Bucksy/Wikimedia Commons.

These are primarily freight railways built to transport resources from mines and plantations to ports, with passenger transport an afterthought.

A high-speed maglev seems like overkill for carrying ore, especially as the film goes out of its way to point out that vibranium is too unstable to take on high-speed trains without careful safety precautions. Nevertheless, the scene where Shuri and Ross geek out about these maglevs might just be the single most relatable in any Marvel movie.

A very extravagant freight line. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Perhaps this all makes sense though. Wakanda is still an absolute monarchy, and without democratic input its king is naturally going to choose exciting hyperloop and maglev projects over boring local and regional transport links.

Here’s hoping the next Black Panther film sees T’Challa reforming Wakanda’s government, and then getting really stuck into double-track improvements to the Steptown Streetcar.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets as @stejormur.

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