Choking on the congestion charge

Look out, New York: London’s failed, car-baiting, bossy road-toll scheme is heading your way.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

Since February 2003, Londoners have had to pay a charge to the local authority, currently £8, for the privilege of entering the central district by car from 7am to 6pm, Monday to Friday. If they fail to pay in time, they face a £60 fine, which rises to £120 if they don’t pay it within 14 days. If they persistently fail to pay the fine, they can have their car clamped and confiscated (1). Now, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is seriously considering the idea of copying the London scheme. Be warned, New York: it’s an expensive failure driven by an anti-car agenda.

The fact that Bloomberg is toying with the idea suggests that the congestion charge is seen by many as a success. Indeed, a new report published today suggests that London’s congestion charge has had unexpected health benefits. Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and King’s College London used a computer model to estimate that the introduction of the charge has had a ‘modest’ effect on life expectancy, adding 183 years of life for every 100,000 residents in the congestion charge zone (2).

The use of the word ‘modest’ to describe this effect is diplomatic, to say the least. As one of the report’s authors, Cathryn Tonne, confirmed to spiked, the average increase in life expectancy suggested by the report is 14 hours per person – over their entire lifespan! Is it really worth it, when you consider the impact that the congestion charge has on everyday quality of life, from impeding our movement around the city centre to making us spend our disposable income on the ‘luxury’ of driving to work or to the shops instead of on more fun and interesting things?

Improving health was not, of course, the stated aim of the congestion charge. The primary goal was to tackle the terrible congestion that often slows traffic to a crawl in central London. However, while the charge has had an impact on traffic levels, other changes have meant that its effect has been largely negated.

The idea behind the London scheme was that charging people to enter the city centre would encourage people to get out of their cars. Many of these people would then hop on public transport, which would be subsidised by the money brought in by the charging scheme. However, the substantial fall in the number of cars using the charging zone – which includes the financial district (‘the City’), the entertainment and shopping areas in the West End and surrounding areas – means that not enough money is being raised for public transport: the most recent figures from Transport for London (TfL) suggest a long-term fall of 16 per cent in car numbers, and as a result less revenue has been raised for public transport than expected.

Furthermore, due to a variety of other factors, including the blocking off of sidestreets and altered traffic flows and road works, congestion is almost back to pre-charge levels. Also, the fall in cars tends to happen later in the day, after 11am. That is because it is far easier for a shopper, tourist or someone simply passing through the zone to change their travel arrangements or route than it is for a commuter who relies on a car and has to get to a specific place in central London for work.

Some additional congestion has been caused by the creation of bus lanes and cycle routes. It is a reasonable pragmatic decision that when road space is fixed, priority should be given to packed buses carrying scores of passengers over cars carrying one or two people. But the introduction of double-length, articulated ‘bendy’ buses also means that junctions are more frequently blocked, leading to more unnecessary hold-ups for other vehicles.

As a result, in the morning rush hour, congestion has barely changed yet the people using cars have had a tax dumped on them. For business users, like delivery vans and lorries, commercial necessity means that they simply have to put up with the charge – they have no way of avoiding it other than to stop doing business in the city centre.

A report by the Conservative Bow Group published in September 2007 is damning. Arguing that the net profit after capital and running costs has been a minuscule £10million over the first five years of the scheme – not the £303million that Livingstone claims for the first three years alone – the report concludes: ‘There have always been traffic jams in London. The mayor cannot be blamed for this. Except that now Londoners have to pay £8 to sit in one.’ (3)

The real problem is that there has actually been very little fundamental effort to tackle traffic congestion – for instance by building new roads or making public transport so affordable and reliable that it becomes a better option for travellers. This is not solely a London problem. As noted elsewhere on spiked, between 1964 and 2004, British motorists travelled three times farther using four times as many cars, yet the total road length in Britain increased by just 20 per cent in this time (see Welcome to the stay-at-home society, by Brendan O’Neill).

What really underpins the congestion charge scheme is an anti-car outlook. As far back as 1999, before he was elected as London mayor, Ken Livingstone told The Sunday Times: ‘I hate cars. If I ever get any powers again I’d ban the lot.’

This anti-car outlook has now found expression in the shifting justification for the congestion charge. The original idea of cutting congestion has been a failure, so the whole scheme is now being couched as an environmental tax to help stop climate change. Thus, Livingstone has now proposed to introduce a swingeing £25 per day charge on cars producing emissions in excess of 225 grammes of carbon dioxide per kilometre while removing the charge on smaller, more economical vehicles (4). And those larger cars hit by the £25 charge won’t receive a resident’s discount, so those unlucky enough to live in the charging zone and drive a big car will have to pay thousands of pounds per year for the privilege, with no way of avoiding the tax other than to stop driving or replace their cars.

Unlike car-driving commuters, Livingstone has had an easy ride on this issue. That is partly because people still believe that congestion would be much worse without the charge – which is far from clear – but mostly because a significant number of Londoners, or at least London-based media and political people, share Livingstone’s anti-car prejudices. Hence the abuse directed at the drivers of 4x4s and SUVs – nicknamed ‘Chelsea Tractors’ by those espousing a certain reverse snobbery. While the motor car is not the be-all and end-all of transport options, what is being called into question is the wisdom of people wanting to move about at all. It’s the same prejudice that underpins the distaste for cheap flights. This thinking takes the emergency advice, ‘only travel if your journey is necessary’, and turns it into a way of life.

So, New Yorkers: if you need to raise more money for public transport, bite the bullet and put the fares up or raise local taxes. If you want to tackle congestion, think smart about how you can make it easier for people to avoid town at certain times of the day. Maybe you could build some new infrastructure to divert vehicles from your busy avenues or figure out schemes to shift less time-sensitive road users to other parts of the day. Just don’t fall for the idea that surrounding your city with cameras and hammering motorists for the privilege of driving on streets they already pay for is a solution. And above all, learn to spot an anti-travel agenda when you see one.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked

Previously on spiked

Nico Macdonald noted that despite the congestion charge, London was still stuck in a jam. Austin Williams asked if a petition against road-pricing was steering the debate in the wrong direction. Amidst all the talk of congestion charges, Mick Hume wondered where the plans for new roads were. Brendan O’Neill said welcome to the stay-at-home society. Or read more at spiked issue Transport.

(1) Penalties and enforcement, Transport for London

(2) Congestion charge ‘boosts health’, BBC News, 28 February 2007

(3) London Under Livingstone: An evaluation of Labour’s Mayor, Bow Group

(4) London plans to punish gas-guzzling vehicles, AFP, 12 February 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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