Monday 11 September 2023

Cambridge cancels congestion charging and it isn't a surprise

I wrote in March 2023 about Cambridge's ambitious proposal for what it was calling a "Sustainable Travel Zone", but which was actually a congestion charge, and how it was not going well.

Well the BBC has reported that it has been cancelled, less than two weeks after revised plans were suggested that ought to have been the original plans in the first place.

I criticised the original proposal because its scale and scope were too ambitious, and because it offered little for those who would pay, as it was primarily designed as a revenue raising scheme, which had its scope defined by the amount of money local politicians wanted to raise to uplift the quality of its bus service.  £50 million was to be spent enhancing services.

As a revenue raising scheme that was also described as being intended to "reduce traffic" it is hardly surprising that those who faced paying didn't see what they would benefit from, especially as few could envisage how the proposed improvements to bus services were "better" than their own cars, and there was next to no effort made to sell the proposal on the basis that it might improve travel times for those who still drive.

From that objective came a scheme design that was blunt and ill-focused.  Why?

  1. It was designed as an area charge, like central London's congestion charge, so there could only be a single charge per day regardless of how much driving was undertaken.  Those who undertook a single trip would pay the same as those driving commercially throughout the day.  
  2. The area charge encompassed ALL of Cambridge. It effectively made the entire city into a congestion charge zone, regardless of how busy any streets were at any time, it priced the city for access, so those who drove towards the central city (who likely had other transport options for their trip) paid the same as those crossing from one side to the other (which would typically involve a less direct public transport trip).
  3. The charge would apply all day, from 0700-1900.  So there was no effort to focus on peak charging at all, or focus on congestion.  Although it would initially only apply in the AM peak in 2025 to commercial vehicles it would expand to all day operation from 2027 for all vehicles that would not be exempt.
  4. HGVs would pay exponentially more than cars, at £50 per day (perhaps £25 if zero emission) compared to £5 for cars.  It's unclear how Cambridge expected to function effectively by treating HGVs as if they take up 10x the road space of cars (and have no modal substitute) when they actually take up 2.5-3x the road space of cars.
There was a proposal for a low-income discount for some drivers, along with exemptions for those attending medical appointments and a range of other categories. However, much of this did not seem to help much with the public perception.

The public response to the proposals was highly negative, with protests, a petition and debates, plus the local election in 2023 seeing the Conservatives (who oppose the proposal, as it has been advanced by the Labour led Council) win a seat on the Council.

I suggested the proposal be scaled down, to peak only charges (with a half-price shoulder period), cordons rather than area charges (and two cordons, one around the city centre and one around the city edge) and a lower multiplier for heavy vehicles.  

Revised plans

At least one of those ideas was taken on board, with plans announced in August 2023 for peak-only charges (0700-1000, 1500-1800) and 50 "free days" for residents to be able to drive without charges, every year. A 50% discount would also apply to locally owned businesses using HGVs and vans, and a 50% discount for people on low incomes.

The revenue to be collected would only be £26 million per annum, but would be enough to implement significant bus improvements. Perhaps had the scheme been scoped like that from the first place, it might have had a chance of being implemented. 

However, it has since been abandoned altogether, not least because the Liberal Democrats have withdrawn support. The Liberal Democrats govern the neighbouring South Cambridgeshire District Council (which surrounds the city of Cambridge) and lead the Cambridgeshire County Council. As the proposed congestion charge has to be agreed by the Greater Cambridge Partnership Assembly (which includes representatives from multiple local authorities), it would be difficult to see it proceed without their united support.  The Liberal Democrats asked for a "pause" to investigate other sources of funding to upgrade the bus system. 

It appears this reflects increased national antagonism at measures which appear designed to penalise driving, and concern about the political fallout of supporting such measures at this time.

 Collapse and what now?

The final collapse of the concept came when the Labour group on Cambridge City Council withdrew support, out of concern for impacts on low income families. This is clearly not assuaged by the proposed 50% discount for low income households or the proposed 50 "free" trips permitted per annum for residents. What this all appears to be is a political reaction to a response to proposals that did not convince the public.

The Councils all still wish to upgrade bus services, and are not opposed to the fundamental objectives, but it is not clear how they proceed, short of recasting the whole scheme to include something  for those who drive.

I'm not surprised it has all faltered, in part because notwithstanding much of the public's stated interest in addressing environmental issues including climate change, there is much less enthusiasm in paying more in what are seen as taxes to pay for services that they do not see as benefiting them.

Assuming Cambridge still wants to proceed it needs to re-evaluating its policy around road charging to think more about one question - What will road charging do for those who pay?

There are two clear answers to this which it should consider:
  1. What travel time savings and improvements in trip reliability will the system be designed to achieve?
  2. Can some of the revenue be used to improve the road network, whether by addressing deferred maintenance or improving some bottlenecks or safety issues in the network?

Could Cambridge get a road pricing scheme it could accept?

This requires a very different mindset from that which treats pricing existing road users as a useful tax to pay for alternatives only. It doesn't mean that revenue cannot be used to support improving public transport and cycling, but it does mean that first and foremost pricing be used to improve the level of service of those who pay.


If the scheme were redrawn to be cordon based, or even zonal based, at peak periods only (and only in respective directions of travel) there would be a chance it could be focused on congestion and improving travel time reliability.  Cambridge has an awful road network for motorists seeking to avoid driving towards the centre to travel from one side to the other, (for example consider driving from the northwest to the southeast without following the city centre ring route) no doubt because local politicians didn't think that was important. It might help to think about the extent to which pricing should be focused on congested routes, particularly those with viable (or soon to be viable) competing public transport options.

A city centre cordon would be a reasonably elegant start, followed by a peripheral one that enabled vehicles exiting the M11 or A14 highways to avoid Cambridge altogether, or a few strategic charging points on bridges over the River Cam.  Pricing ought to reflect road space occupancy, so none of the 10x multiplier for HGVs, just make it 3x, with 2x for smaller trucks.  If pricing only operates at peak times there is less need for discounts and exemptions as well.

The use of revenue is important as well. Whilst Cambridge won't want to be seen to be replacing spending on maintenance with revenue from a congestion charge, it could consider whether deferred maintenance could be addressed or better yet, some small scale highly efficient road improvements that may make intersections work more effectively or address other localised bottlenecks or safety issues.  Using road pricing revenue for economically efficient road improvements is a net positive for the community, and with pricing there should be no concern about inducing demand, but rather improving the efficiency of the travel of those needing to use the roads. This means buses too, as well as light commercial vehicles, freight delivery and the like.

However, I fear that the ambition and the failure to recognise the need for road pricing to give something to those who pay has "poisoned the well" politically around the very philosophy of congestion pricing.  This is hardly surprising, as far too many of the advocates for pricing do so from an antipathy to private motoring, rather than seeing it as a tool to make roads operate more efficiently, and so be an opportunity to improve all travel.  It should not be a surprise to find that people who drive don't like paying more for what appears to be no benefit to them at all.  I would have thought the lessons of the failure to proceed with congestion charging in Edinburgh and Manchester 20 and 15 years ago respectively (and indeed the failure to even expand London's congestion charging scheme) should have been learned.