Wednesday 30 March 2016

Next London Mayor will have to increase congestion charge says Boris Johnson

It's been reported in the Evening Standard that current (and outgoing) London Mayor Boris Johnson has said that the congestion charge has to be increased or reformed into "smart charging" if his successor is to manage congestion and implement policies to pedestrianise some streets.  The most popular post on this blog is my one on ten years of the London congestion charge, and since I live in London and use public transport and drive, I have a personal interest in what happens.

Boris Johnson was elected in 2008 and has served two terms, he won a constituency at the 2015 General Election in west London and is rumoured to be interested in succeeding David Cameron as Conservative Party leader (Cameron has said he does not wish to be Prime Minister beyond the next General Election in 2020).  So he is saying this without much political baggage, except, of course, he shrank the area of the congestion charge in his first term, by removing the Western extension that included Kensington and Chelsea (which was an electoral pledge of his in the 2008 election).   That makes his latest statement seem contradictory, but there was a case that the Western extension was poorly conceived and was largely a political stunt by his predecessor, Ken Livingstone, to hit the wealthiest part of London with a congestion charge (even though it perversely gave all of its residents a 90% discount to drive into central London).   With only a 3% reduction in traffic speeds in the zone of the Western extension after it was scrapped, it indicates that it was a blunt instrument that was poorly targeted.

The reason Johnson is advocating an increase or reform is simple.  The congestion reduction benefits of the congestion charge have been exhausted, because a significant proportion of road space in central London has been reallocated from general traffic to bus/taxi lanes, cycle lanes and wider footpaths.  With ongoing population growth (10,000 a month across Greater London), growth in delivery traffic because of internet retail, growth in minicab/Uber traffic and ongoing economic growth, the gains from the charge have completely been eroded.  Indeed, the volumes of cars entering central London has dropped by 30% since 2000.  If there were no private cars in central London during the day there would still be severe congestion.  A quick look at traffic data for one street in central London (Charing Cross Road near Trafalgar Square) shows a total average daily traffic count of 9674 vehicles in 2014, of which only 5791 vehicles were cars, minicabs or taxis.  As the RAC Foundation head of external affairs, Pete Williams suggests, it indicates that the volume of traffic isn't the issue (as car traffic is in decline), rather roadworks and the reallocation of road space have meant that remaining traffic delays have got worse.

London central congestion charge zone and the defunct western extension
The report indicates that delays have increased by 13% in the past two years with average speeds down to 7.4mph, with average speeds across Greater London down to 16.5mph, which is a new low. Around 66,000 vehicles pay the charge each day and gross revenues are around £257 million a year, with operating and capital costs of £84.9 million a year, resulting in net revenues of around £173 million (source: 2015 annual report)   That suggests the congestion charge remains expensive to operate compared to other charging systems internationally (the Stockholm congestion tax costs US$26 million a year in operating costs).  It is worth noting that 108,000 vehicles a day drive in the congestion charge zone and pay nothing, primarily taxis and buses.  There has been talk of extending the congestion charge to some taxis, although the impact of this on congestion would be negligible.  A charge of £11.50 per day could easily be spread across multiple trips for any cab, although it would certainly mean some marginal trips may be shifted onto other modes, this is unlikely to make a noticeable difference.  One other underlying concern is that bus patronage has been dropping after years of increases, with one reason apparently being congestion making bus travel too slow and unreliable.  As much of the road network has no scope for bus lanes, addressing congestion is also about improving the reliability of public transport that isn't on rails.

Little political interest in serious change

The Mayoral election is on the 5th of May this year.  However, neither major candidate (Sadiq Khan for Labour and Zac Goldsmith for the Conservatives) have shown much interest in transport policies that have anything meaningful to say about roads.  Khan's transport policy focuses on a freeze in public transport fares, but also says he wont increase the congestion charge.  Goldsmith focuses on public transport too, although also says he wont increase the congestion charge and wants to 'crack down' on pollution from trucks.  Clearly, neither candidate thinks there are votes to be won from advocating reforms to the congestion charge, regardless of their merit.  By contrast, Liberal Democrat candidate Caroline Pidgeon advocates increasing the congestion charge, with higher peak charges, although she's wrong if she thinks the peaks are 0700-0930 and 1600-1800, as traffic levels are lower at 0700 than they are during the middle of the day.   The Greens have previously advocated London wide distance, time, location based road user charging to penalise car traffic and raise money for public transport and cycling infrastructure.

What could be done?

Simply increasing the congestion charge will have, at best, a modest impact, because of the low proportion of private car trips into the charging zone.   The operating hours of the charge could be extended to 6.30pm, and even on a Saturday (when congestion can be at its worst), but this would upset theatre and retail lobbies, although it would probably make an impact on Saturday given the much higher proportion of car traffic and discretionary trips.   Having differential charges by time of day would also be of limited benefit for the charge zone alone.

Clearly any reform that would be effective would have to involve charging for road use far beyond central London out to the suburbs, perhaps to the multi-lane North Circular Road (A406) which varies from residential street to near motorway standard, and the network of streets called the South Circular Road.  It could be done on a distance basis or zonal, with lines drawn to create boundaries between areas.

Although the zonal option seems simple, when you get out to the suburbs and small retail/town centres, the likelihood is that having what is basically an access pass system for driving around London will create winners and losers in terms of shops and homes.  Some people will find driving a few hundred feet will cost more than driving several miles.  Furthermore, if the congestion charge is to deliver what it is called - it needs to target congestion, which means charges that aren't based on convenient lines drawn on a map, but rather on congested roads.

Boundary for expanded London congestion charge? 
That suggests distance, time and location based charging, and for that to be reliable and accurate, it means having some form of on board equipment in vehicles subject to the charge.  This creates two major issues:

- Public acceptability;
- Out of town users.

Public acceptability

For residents of inner London, a significant proportion don't own or use cars regularly, so they are likely to be at best supportive and at worst non-plussed about a major expansion of the charge, but beyond that having an additional road user charge across a vast area of London.   It is highly unlikely that commercial vehicle users (freight or trade vehicles) or private vehicle users will find a new charge acceptable unless it is accompanied by investment in improving London's road infrastructure.  Quite understandably, even though a wider congestion charge could significantly ease congestion, the use of the net revenues will be under close scrutiny.  The Liberal Democrat and Green Party suggestions of spending it all on public transport and cycling is not going to be acceptable.

However, it seems possible to have a programme of road improvements that deliver benefits to all road users that a wider London road user charge could pay for (and which TfL could borrow against in advance to make some improvements now).   These could be:

- Addressing poor road surfaces on all A and B roads, with a commitment to addressing all other pothole/poor road surface issues within 10 years. This should also include lines, signs and even corridor rubbish clearance;
- Develop a long term strategy for all major road corridors, which includes addressing junctions, intersections and capacity mismatches to relieve persistent safety and bottleneck issues;
- Have some "flagship" transformative new road improvements that will make a noticeable difference to travel time for those willing to pay.  This includes new river crossings and the proposed east-west road tunnel, but also should mean fixing the Bounds Greens, Henly's Corner and Brent Park sections of the A406.

Proposed cross London road tunnels
TfL selling a new road user charge on the basis that it will make life easier for motorised road users may be difficult, as there is little evidence that much has been done to reduce congestion, compared to the significant spending on public transport and cycling infrastructure in the past 15 years.

It would be much easier if it were, in part, an offset for other charges, such as council tax, vehicle excise duty (registration tax) or fuel duty.   Of course there may be issues with some of these, but some thought should be given to at least some offsetting reduction in other taxes.

Out of town users

The biggest problem with any system that involves on board equipment is how to treat those that are not equipped.  It seems unlikely to be possible to make the equipment mandatory for vehicles registered in London (and that would create a loophole for those who could register a vehicle at an out of London address), so something would have to be done for those who are not equipped.   These vehicles could face a flat congestion charge, but this would have to be high to ensure that such a charge wasn't an incentive to avoid paying by time, distance and geography.  An alternative would be a charge that was based on time, identifying a vehicle by number plate entering the large distance charge zone and charging it by the time spent there before it leaves.  Again the charging schedule for this would need to be quite expensive, but also address the genuine needs of visiting vehicles.  It would have to vary by time of day and day of the week.  It is one thing to drive in at 8am on a Monday, another to do so on a Sunday.

Time for a study?

It will seem self-serving to suggest it, but it would appear the next step would be for the next Mayor to more comprehensively investigate the benefits and options for road user charging in London.  This includes options for it partially replacing other forms of taxation, including cases where it will require consent from central government.  A package approach should be considered, and with clear goals to reduce congestion and the negative externalities from road transport, but also improve mobility for people and goods.   By no means should it be seen as a "cash cow" to raise money for other purposes, but also should it not be seen as a way to penalise road transport.  Roads are, after all, simply corridors.  With cleaner vehicles and increased scope for connected and autonomous vehicles, they will have flexibility, safety and environmental impacts lower than they have been for many decades. A lot of attention has been paid to London's railway and underground network, London's roads are long overdue a strategic approach that addresses poor maintenance, bottlenecks and chronic congestion that is choking a growing city and adding significant costs to freight and business, as well as exacerbating a long standing pollution issue.

I'd simply ask the next Mayor, whoever it may be, to be bold and to start the process of looking at a transformation as to how London's roads are charged, funded and managed.  Neither will it be the car-oriented modernism of the 1960s, nor the moralistic car-hating of some in the green movement, it should be about roads that deliver reasonable standards of service at a price that reflects the scarcity of capacity, and building new capacity when and where it can enhance the growth and mobility of London.  A part of that will be major expansion and reform of the congestion charge.  Perhaps Singapore will show one direction?

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