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.