Thursday 9 March 2023

Cambridge (UK) announced plans for a congestion charge - and it is not going well

The Greater Cambridge Partnership has announced plans to introduce a congestion charge for the city of Cambridge. This has been mulled for some years, and of course the record of UK cities introducing congestion pricing, beyond London and Durham has been a failure - primarily because the public has been opposed, so it will be interesting to see how and whether this actually gets implemented.

The Greater Cambridge Partnership is a public sector body set up between five local authorities and the UK Government to implement a City Deal - which is a partnership for funding infrastructure and development for the city using a mix of local and central government tax income.

It would be fair to say that the proposal has been highly controversial, and with good reason. 

The congestion charge zone has been labelled the Sustainable Travel Zone. I'd question whether rebranding something achieves much, as the public's scepticism can only be enhanced when a euphemism is used to describe what it actually is - it's an area which will have road pricing. 

What's the objective?

The objective expressed first in the consultation document is to raise money to spend on subsidising a significant improvement in bus services. The second objective is to lower the level of traffic.  The implication is that there would be reductions in congestion, but it would be wrong to infer this is about improving travel times for those who drive.

Where's the money going?

The proposed improvement in bus services includes simpler fares, more routes and more services, with 10 minute headways, more evening services and more services to rural areas. It certainly looks like a huge uplift in service, but of course someone has to pay, and the Greater Cambridge Partnership wants motorists to. £50 million a year is proposed to be spent, and the congestion charge is not to be introduced until most of the bus service improvement have been implemented. 

A big uplift in cycling infrastructure and improvements to encourage more walking, including secure cycle parking.

What are the details?

Proposed Cambridge congestion charging zone

It is an area charge, like London, except it covers almost ALL of metropolitan Cambridge (unlike London!), effectively putting a price on driving into Cambridge.  Why not the centre? Because this is about raising money.

It would operate 0700-1900 weekdays (it is NOT operating in the peaks only, because of the revenue raising objective.

Private cars would be charged £5 to drive into or within the area.

Avoiding the area will largely be about driving on the M11 motorway to the west and the A14 highway along the north, but it will be quite a journey to avoid it driving from southeast to northeast.

When would it be introduced?

The proposal is that from 2025, at the AM peak only, commercial vehicles (trucks and delivery vans) and coaches, would be charged.  Why? Well presumably to earn money, because they will hardly benefit at all from any travel time savings.

In 2026 this would be extended to private cars in the AM peak, and in 2027 to the whole of the day.

How would it work?

"The charge would apply to vehicles, unless they are exempt, that move into, out of or within the Zone, not just those crossing the boundary. This is because 53% of journeys in the morning peak start within the Zone; over a third of these journeys are wholly within the Zone which are shorter and so are easier to make by foot, bike and bus, than those coming from further away. A network of automatic number plate recognition cameras would be placed across the Zone to capture images of a vehicle’s registration plate. Registration plate images would then be processed to work out if a charge applies. In line with existing charging schemes such as the Dartford bridge, payment could be made in advance or later via an account, online or over the telephone. As per usual traffic enforcement practices, penalty charge notices would be issued"

In short, it looks a lot like the London congestion charge, except it is the first congestion charge across an entire city. 

Will different vehicles pay differently?

Yes.  London has a single charge, whereas at the other end of the spectrum Singapore charges vehicles based on road-space occupancy (motorcycles half that of cars, trucks two to three times as much as cars). Cambridge has decided to ignore either approach and go for a bizarre array of variable rates.

Motorcycles and moped pay... the same as cars because "they raise potential risks in terms of safety, noise and conflicts with cyclists".  So is this a safety and noise charge now? They emit less pollution, take up less road space, but...

Light goods vehicles (delivery vans and small trucks) and minibuses (not scheduled bus services) will be charged double what cars and motorcycles are, at £10. Why? Who knows?  They take up roughly the same road space as a car, they are much less likely to mode shift (LGVs not at all).

Coaches and heavy goods vehicles (large trucks) will be charged a massive £50. Why? After all you'd think coaches replace cars in some cases, and what are large trucks going to do otherwise?  The only guess it is all about money. 

It is floated that there might be a 50% discount for zero-emission commercial vehicles, but why is £25 for a coach or large truck justifiable from a public policy point of view?

Taxis will get a 100% discount if they are zero emissions from 2028, which may be because they are treated as public transport, but they are effectively cars hauling people for profit.  To be fair most private hire vehicles (minicabs) will not be wheelchair accessible, and will be charged like cars, but a single £5 a day for doing business in Cambridge will (as it did in London) make little difference to traffic volumes.

Discounts and exemptions?

Clearly scheduled bus services get a 100% discount, whereas emergency, breakdown, dial-a-ride and local authority "operational vehicles" will be exempt.  Disabled and blue badge holders are to be exempt or have a 100% discount (blue badges are the often abused scheme in the UK to grant free parking to drivers with disability or those who drive people with disability).  Car club vehicles will get a 100% discount, to encourage people to stop owning a car and instead pay a business to hire one. 

People on "low incomes" will get discounts of between 25-100%, which begs the question about what that will mean.  Will a student from a wealthy family get a discount? Will a partner of someone with a high income, who happens to work part time, get a discount for a low income? The potential for abuse is considerable.

A whole host of specified categories will also see trips reimbursed, from medical appointments for those deemed too ill to use public transport, to social care workers and minibuses used by charities.  

Expected outcomes?

Besides the money, the consultation document makes a number of claims:
  • A 50% reduction in traffic (which seems very high), but also a claim of a 15% reduction in traffic compared to 2011.  The latter seems more likely. 
  • A 40% increase in public transport use
  • Allow 60000 more walking and cycling trips per day
Meeting carbon reduction targets is presumably achieved by reducing traffic (some material suggests it would achieve a 5% reduction in emissions), but some other claims are largely subjective.  Most of this is about the improvements to the bus service such as "tackling transport-related social inclusion" and "breaking the cycle of car dependency".

Public response

This has not been good, and honestly I am not surprised.  It is as if nobody has bothered to look at experience elsewhere and tried to establish why other cities in the UK did not advance congestion charging beyond London (Durham barely counts given the scale). 

There have been protests. A petition has achieved over 28,000 signatures against it.  Residents, businesses, unions are all among the people who have opposed it.

Public opposition is due to fear of the effect on the cost of living, and of a scheme that bluntly means most people in Cambridge, with a car, won't be able to drive it anywhere during a weekday without being charged.  For example, a trip from a Cambridge suburb to a country village outside Cambridge in the middle of the day will cost £5 as would driving into the centre at 0800.  

It has even had a televised debate. The local MP, Daniel Zeichner (Labour) supports the proposals, whereas the neighbouring MP, Lucy Frazer (Conservative) opposes the congestion  charge (although apparently not the improvements to bus services).

What's right about the proposal

It's fairly simple to understand and apply, so it should raise a good deal of money.  It is "low risk" operationally.  It will also reduce traffic, albeit bluntly, so it would almost certainly achieve many of the cited objectives... if it can get past public opinion.

What's wrong about the proposal

It is blunt, inflexible and does not deliver much for those who would pay, in terms of reduced travel times and ease of travel.  

A car that makes half a dozen trips a day for business, contributing to congestion and emissions will be charged as much as a single vehicle exiting Cambridge to undertake a trip not able to be replicated by bus.  Trucks, coaches and light commercial vehicles are to be penalised unduly.  Why a truck should be charged 10x as much as a car is difficult to understand, except that they have little elasticity of demand, so it is simply a tax on delivering goods in Cambridge during the day. Coaches even more bizarrely, as they effectively compete with cars (and trains). 

As an area charge it can't have different pricing by time of day, and it can't distinguish between people entering Cambridge or driving within it, nor differentiate between driving into Cambridge in the AM peak and those leaving it.  It can't be adjusted according to traffic levels, because area charges are inflexible.

See Stockholm, Gothenburg and Singapore for schemes that DO target peak travel. Cambridge doesn't, and surely it is not just because someone decided to cut and paste the London scheme onto Cambridge.

Cambridge will still have peak congestion, because the price will be too low at peaks, and the price doesn't reward driving one direction in the peak and the other off-peak.  It will encourage more taxi/minicab use because they will be exempt or be able to spread the cost of the fee across many trips, so expect a transfer from cars to... cars.

There are two fundamental reasons why congestion charges have NOT expanded outside London and Durham in the UK and Cambridge is seeking to replicate them, and both are related to not offering anything for those who will pay:

  1. There is little said about travel time savings or improved trip time reliability for those who WILL pay the charge. For commercial vehicles that will have to pay more than cars, what will they save per day? Essentially there is little effort made to sell the idea that those paying will benefit.  
  2. All of the net revenues will be put into improving bus services, and improving alternatives to driving, none of it will be used to even improve road maintenance and ensure the charged road network works more effectively for those who pay.  Indeed, the money spent will be used to take more road space away from those who will pay. 
In short, there is almost nothing for those who pay. There is a lot for those who don't drive. It is seeking to reduce car ownership, and transform how people travel, but the transformation sought is at the price of making it more expensive to drive, just about anywhere in Cambridge, for most of the week.

What should Cambridge do?

Like Gothenburg, Cambridge has got itself into this position by wanting to spend a large amount of money, but not willing to use conventional taxes to pay for them.  However, there are obvious merits in having some form of road pricing.  So here's some options:

1.   Just introduce AM peak charging. 0700-1000. That focuses charging on commuters, encourages a spread of demand, and should help to justify more bus services at peak times.  

2.    Give up the area charge and consider two cordons.  A city centre one and one at the urban periphery, charge a different price for each, run the city centre one all day long, and the periphery one at the peaks only (and only in one direction, inbound AM, outbound PM). That means people aren't priced for just driving anywhere, and it gives people options during the day to shift time of travel.  

3.    Half price motorcycles and scooters, double price commercial vehicles only. There is just no need to penalise freight or to charge motorcycles more than the road space they occupy.  This isn't a noise and safety charge, stop trying to mix objectives.

4.    Have shoulder pricing, so that half an hour either side of the peak, pricing is half the peak price, to avoid a rush before or after the peak.

5.    Commit to a high standard of road maintenance and using net revenues to contribute towards that. 

Finally, more than anything else, communicate to motorists what they will gain from the proposal. If you can't do that, then don't be surprised if a lot of them simply say no.


  1. The charge isn't for driving INTO cambridge, it is for any vehicle movement within Cambridge itself too. So residents who work outside Cambridge are charged to leave to go to work.

  2. Excellent analysis, thank you. (Cambs Against CONgestion Charge member)

    1. Yes, it is a good analysis. I'm curious, would you switch to supporting a scheme that took on all of these suggestions?