Tuesday 19 April 2016

What should the next Mayor of London do with the congestion charge?

London will have a new Mayor after the 5th of May.  The incumbent, Boris Johnson, is not standing again (he won a Parliamentary seat in the 2015 election and has his eyes on national politics) so the race is wide open, and this time the two leading contenders are existing MPs with both major political parties.  Polls indicate the Labour candidate, Sadiq Khan, has the lead, with Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith facing an uphill battle to keep the Mayoralty for the Conservative Party.  Goldsmith doesn't have the profile or charismatic celebrity factor of Boris Johnson, and may also be disadvantaged by Labour having done much better in the General Election in London than nationwide (the Conservatives won the election across the UK, but in London Labour won more seats).   Notably, this is the first election since 2000 that Ken Livingstone isn't standing (he won in 2000 and 2004, lost in 2008 and tried once more in 2012).  London has had two Mayors (of greater London, not including the 32 boroughs within it) since the position was created in 2000.  

Now defunct Western extension of congestion charge zone highlighted
What's notable in the narrow world of road pricing is how a policy that was divisive in 2000 and 2004 elections - the congestion charge - is now not at all controversial.  Neither major candidate, nor the candidates for the three largest minor parties (Liberal Democrats, Greens and UKIP) are campaigning to abolish or shrink it.   Notably in his first term, Boris Johnson abolished the "Western extension" of the congestion charge zone, a rather blunt attempt to manage traffic in the Chelsea and Kensington suburbs to the west or a political hit by then leftwing Mayor Ken Livingstone at one of the wealthiest parts of London.  That's long been forgotten, and after an almost imperceptible increase in traffic, it wont be coming back.   However, it is also notable that the proposed new Silvertown Tunnel (a new Thames Crossing primarily to relieve the heavily congested Blackwall Tunnels - a pair of two-lane one way tunnels in east London) will be tolled along with the existing Blackwall Tunnels.  This is, in effect, a new congestion charge on an existing road, although it is in part justified to raise sufficient revenues to pay for the new crossing, it will help ensure all of the capacity along the route is effectively managed.
London's existing congestion charge zone covers a small area of greater London

Neither Sadiq Khan nor Zac Goldsmith have said much about the congestion charge.  Khan's big transport policy gimmick is to promise a freeze on public transport fares, to be funded from administrative savings (although the scope for this is disputed), Goldsmith has largely promised business as usual with more cycle lanes, improved public transport, an additional road crossing of the Thames (there is around a 17 mile gap between the Dartford Tunnels and the planned Silvertown Tunnel) and action on air pollution. Khan has since said he is uninterested in increasing the congestion charge, but Goldsmith is, at least willing to look at "smarter" charging.
Planned tolled Silvertown crossing

Beyond the two main candidates (the electoral system is preferential based, so it almost certainly will be between these two), the Liberal Democrat candidate - Caroline Pidgeon - wants an additional charge on the most polluting diesel vehicles (the congestion charge zone is already going to become an ultra low emission zone from 2020).  Green Party candidate - Sian Berry - is the most ambitious, wanting congestion charging expanded across London, based on distance, time, location and emissions rating, with all net revenue dedicated to increased subsidies for public transport and active transport modes (and the implication that cars and trucks will have punitive charges imposed on them).

 On the face of it, that seems much closer to the sort of vision I have for charging in London, although it does have three big issues:
- Public acceptability;
- Efficient use of net revenues;
- Treatment of non-London users. 

So what would I do?

1. Launch a study to help prepare for a pilot: London has had previous studies (ROCOL being one of the most well known), but technology and experience have moved on.  Commitment to a study as the first step towards a pilot will help establish the policies that a pilot can test.  Issues such as products for non-London drivers, rate setting and reviewing, use of revenues and how/if there is any interaction with existing motoring taxation, should all be looked at.  Modelling of revenues and economic and environmental impacts should be considered, based on different scenarios of growth, changes to the network and fleet, and perhaps even the impacts of increased vehicle connectivity and automation.  Key will be identifying how charging can not only significantly improve the productivity of London (and the viability/demand for public transport and active modes), but also have a major impact on environmental sustainability.

2.  Negotiate with government the terms for a London based road user charging pilot including piloting it replacing at least part of existing motoring taxes:  Yes it's a big ask (and expect Treasury push back at first), but this is about three things.  First, expansion of the congestion charge in London can really only address congestion effectively on the basis of charges based on distance, vehicle type, varying by time of day and location.  From a public acceptability point of view this will be remarkably difficult, and so a simple process to give something back to road users to avoid debates about "paying twice" is critical.  I don't believe that it is going to be acceptable to introduce an additional charge on a much wider geographic scale, without countervailing reductions in other taxes, even if net revenues become higher.   Remember, this is for a pilot to prove concepts, to test public acceptability and see if people change behaviour (without improvements to travel times).  London wide time/distance/place based charging may be transformative, it needs measures to encourage its uptake by users.  Secondly, it is clear that both vehicle excise duty and fuel duty face ever decreasing revenues as the rise of electric, hybrid and ultra-fuel efficient vehicles means yields per mile decline and equity questions arise (as it is those with higher incomes who are more likely to afford more fuel efficient vehicles).  The UK is going to have to look at a transition away from fuel duty in the longer term, this is an opportunity to look at this, how it may work and how users may interact with it.

3. Establish a long-term road investment strategy:  Charging for the use of roads in London is all very well, but there needs to be a ten year programme of expenditure on maintenance and improvements that provides a basis for setting charges.  Public acceptability will demand that those paying to use the roads will expect to see something for their money, and it would be efficient to have a programme to address poor standards of maintenance and capital projects to improve safety and congestion across the network.  This means having corridor strategies and to consider where, under conditions of pricing, new capacity should be added (that can be sustainably managed with pricing).  This should also include projects for cyclists, pedestrians (i.e. can we have every traffic signal controlled intersection including signals for pedestrians too?) and bus (and where appropriate truck) priority  lanes.  Seek agreement from Government for the same seven year commitment to funding as it granted to railways and Highway England, on condition that London pursues a path towards road user charging to commence beyond that.

4. Identify transformative projects that change road transport in London:  The idea of an east-west tunnel or inner ring road tunnel should be advanced, and better yet, fix the inefficient light controlled gaps in the A406 North Circular at Bounds Green, Henly's Corner and Golders Green, and talk about tunnelled corridors where they can transform town centres and residential areas (see below).  Roads that, if priced properly, will dramatically reduce travel times, but also give back road space to people.  The key will be location and management of portals that minimise impacts on neighbours.   The difference is that, unlike big road building projects in the past, they are charged to optimise use, ensure free flowing conditions and include suitable incentives/disincentives for vehicles based on emissions.
Proposed tolled cross city road tunnels - London

5. Move TfL Streets into an arms-length commercial entity:  Highways England shows one way of doing this, and London's strategic road network should be driven more by what users want (and in this case users are not just motorised) and delivering levels of service to them. The ranges from congestion, incidence clearance, to maintaining signs, lines and clearing litter.  Putting it into such a structure that enables it to eventually borrow against congestion charge revenue, and take advantage of the property value gains from putting major roads underground (incentivise it to do so).  

Having a vision

London has not added new road capacity to its network since the 1990s when the East Cross Route was built, along with the roads associated with the Canary Wharf development.  It has successfully grown with the increase in passenger trips accommodated not by private car growth, but by public transport and active modes, and will continue to do so.  However, the population is increasing by 10,000 a month, and public transport cannot deliver capacity for increases in freight, and no measures are proven to sustainably relieve congestion other than pricing.

Expanding charging far beyond the existing charging zone will be critical to addressing congestion, raising revenue for the very expensive tunnelled infrastructure needed to move arterial traffic off of congested streets and allow for more bus, active mode and truck traffic to use precious road space and to incentivise better use of scarce capacity.

There needs to be bold steps to get there, and in the first term of the next Mayor it may be enough to have a study and prepare for a pilot so that several thousand London road users trial not just the technology but the charging concepts for a next generation system.   Meanwhile, a lot of work can be done on exactly what London's roads should look like in the next few decades.  A lot was done already in the past few years, but a vision that is about addressing deferred maintenance, addressing minor improvements that can reduce congestion and improve safety and then expensive transformative projects that can be built AND avoid localised negative externalities.

Could London's congestion charge be expanded this far out?

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