Monday, 8 August 2011

Effects of scrapping Western Extension of London's congestion charge

As reported here, the part of the London Congestion Charge zone called the Western Extension (as it was added to the Central Zone in 2007) was closed on 4 January 2011, effectively reducing the area of the charge to the original central zone opened in 2003. This followed the implementation of a promise from Mayor Boris Johnson to consult over the Western extension, with the possibility of scrapping it, if he was elected in 2008. The consultation saw a 62% result of opposition (based on surveys and submissions) opposed to retaining the zone.

For those unfamiliar with the zone, it is depicted in the map below.  As you can see, it effectively doubled the size of the congestion charge area.  It is worth noting the London Congestion Charge is not a cordon charge, but an area charge in that vehicles are charged not only for entering and exiting the zone, but also if they only circulate within it during charging hours.

Western extension to the left, retained central zone to the right

The results of this have been reported by the BBC in two articles:

- The net revenue loss was estimated at £55 million p.a. (this was net of operational savings);
- Traffic entering the former zone has increased by 8% in the first three months of the year (TfL estimated there would be an 8-15% increase);
- Traffic within the zone has increased by 6% (note that residents had a 90% discount so were less disincentivised to drive and TfL estimated there would be a 6-12% increase);
- Average speeds are down 3% (TfL estimated there would be a 6-12% reduction);
- No impact on air quality (which may reflect the effects of drift from being surrounded by a far larger urban metropolis) except a mild decrease in nitrogen oxide.

The Green Party opposed the abolition of the Western extension, but its abolition appears to be have largely welcomed by local businesses and residents, even though I expect more than a few have forgotten that they now lose their residents’ discount of 90% to enter the Central Zone. For technical reasons, the Western extension and Central Zone were treated “as one” so that anyone paying for one zone, or being a resident of one, would have to pay nothing more to enter the other. In effect, the Western extension offered one of the wealthiest parts of London a 90% discount on driving into central London, something unavailable to all others.

London 24 reported support from the retail community for the abolition:

Steve Warwick, Greater London region chairman of the Federation of Small Business, said: “We are very pleased that the western extension of the congestion charging zone has finally been abolished."

My view is that it was poorly conceived and implemented. 

It would have been far more effective as a second, distinct charging zone that required an additional charge to that of the central zone, and which did not offer residents a discount for driving in the central zone. 

Secondly, it ought to have been applicable for shorter time periods, to reflect the most congested periods, with lower charges during the quieter 1100-1500 period.

Finally, the additional revenue may have best been put into improving road maintenance and the road network (intersection upgrades) so that motorists would see the value of their contribution. Unfortunately, the public opposition to retaining it was too high, so it has gone – and the future development of congestion charging in London is likely to be a far more sophisticated step than the blanket expansion of the area charge. Ideas for that? How about a patchwork of zones, or better yet distance based charging? (and yes, the barriers to implementing either are considerable).

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