London's congestion charge was pioneering, not because it was the first, or even the best congestion pricing scheme in the world (Singapore won that and still does), but because it demonstrated that congestion pricing could be introduced in a country and city with a very different political and policy culture. It has evolved a little since then, but remains an area charge with a flat charge for access all day on weekdays.
It was a success, it achieved its original aims, as charged traffic dropped dramatically, allowing for road capacity to be taken from cars, vans and trucks, to be dedicated to buses, taxis, bicycles and in some cases pedestrian space. However, its simplicity and its scale has proven its limitations. These are:
- Vehicles entering or driving within the zone pay once for a full day's access. This encourages drivers to drive frequently once they pay, mostly discouraging occasional trips;
- A significant proportion of vehicles driving in the congestion charging zone either do not pay or are heavily discounted. Estimated at around half;
- All vehicles subject to the charge pay the same. So a small car pays the same as an articulated truck (which takes up the space of three vehicles).
The Covid19 crisis has resulted in the UK taking drastic measures to establish social distancing in public, including addressing the risks of crowding on public transport in London. Of course, the safest mode in social distancing is driving, but in London this is not physically possible for most trips towards inner London. There simply isn't the road space to accommodate them.
Transport for London announced in June 2020 changes that are described as "temporary" purportedly to ensure car traffic "does not double", but the changes in scope go far beyond what is reasonable to do this (and in some cases don't do enough, because the congestion charging zone only covers 1% of the land area of Greater London.
Recent changes to the congestion charge mean it isn't really what it is called anymore. Sure it is a "Road User Charge" according to Section 295 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999 but although it may resemble a scheme to manage congestion, the scope of operation is much wider.
Instead of simply operating 0700-1800 weekdays (excluding public holidays), its operating hours have been extended as follows:
- Operating hours are now 0700-2200, leaving only nine hours a day which are not subject to the charge;
- Operating days are now seven days a week, including all public holidays except Christmas Day.
Further changes are:
- New applications for the Residents' Discount have been closed since 1 August;
- The daily price has increased to £15 (US$19.70);
- A new reimbursement scheme for relevant NHS and care home staff and patients;
- The charge can now be paid up to three days after travel, at the higher rate of £17.50 (before it was two days).
Yes there is congestion during the day on Saturdays and to a lesser extent on Sundays, and early evenings it can also be congested (and later on a Friday night). However, by no reasonable measure can it be said that at 0700 on a Sunday that there is any congestion issue in central London, nor at 0800, or 0900 or 2100.
The press release notes that the removal of the Residents' Discount is to deter car ownership for those living in central London, albeit that it seems reasonable that those living in central London pay to use the roads the same as everyone else. The price increase and some altering of operating hours would be justified, certainly to 1900 weekdays or beyond, and indeed Saturdays 1100-1800 and even Sundays 1200-1800 can be justified in parts of the central zone. However, it seems that this is really about money as much as anything. TfL faces a financial crisis due to the collapse in fares revenue due to Covid19 and the previous end of central government grants for operating subsidies.
It's notable that TfL reports that only 0.5% of cars entering the charging zone do so daily (like a regular commuter), indicating that car trips that are taken tend to be occasional and are for very specific purposes (e.g. I twice drove into central London to pick up a friend after medical appointments). Just over half only enter the zone once every six months, indicating that car trips to central London are much more deliberate than habitual, and so aren't necessarily able to be readily replaced by other modes.
This is the point, virtually NOBODY drives to work in central London. It is far too slow, and parking is too expensive. So the changes that have been made essentially capture leisure and shopping trips, but most importantly for TfL will generate new income.
It isn't just about cars either, trucks and delivery vans are all captured, so deliveries and freight will now be charged more frequently. Private Hire Vehicles (minicabs) are also captured, but this will make little difference to them except at weekends, as vehicles are only ever charged for one trip, so extended operating hours on weekdays will not mean they are charged more.
London's problem is that the charging scheme as it stands is too inflexible to adapt to changing patterns and can't be extended easily under the current area charge model. Although there is often talk about a GNSS supported distance based charge, this would require vehicles to be equipped with new on-board equipment. A quicker approach would be to lay out multiple cordons (not area charges) with vehicles charged for entering and crossing different zones, similar to how some Italian cities have licensed permit zones for vehicles.
The biggest risk with TfL expanding the congestion charge's scope so bluntly is that it makes the idea that it is about managing congestion difficult for motorists to believe, and so trust in any other measures to expand charging will be low. There is little evidence that the Mayor of London regards reducing traffic congestion to be an important policy objective, whereas to gain the consent of motorists and more importantly, to deliver economic value from road pricing, the act of charging for road use should be in exchange for a better level of service.
As was noted four years ago by the London Assembly, the current London congestion charge is not fit for purpose. It needs to be transformed, but it's not clear that there is the political will, on either side of politics, to make a quantum leap in the performance of London's road network through a combination of pricing and investment in the network.