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Congestion charging

Congestion charging schemes still thin on the ground by 2040, but London’s will still be in place – with delivery vehicles bearing the brunt

Congestion charging

Will we see more congestion charging schemes in British cities by 2040? There are certainly plenty of reasons for these – or similar traffic charging schemes – to be proposed. For example:

  • Reallocating road space to other road users, especially public transport and cyclists
  • Making streets more liveable, and safer
  • Improving air quality

And, of course, one cannot forget the substantial revenue they generate.

204_Congestion charging_pullquote_270x160The £11.50 London congestion charge has been operating since February 2003 and covers an area of 21 sq km. While its boundaries have been enlarged, and then reduced, during its life, it is still one of the largest such zones in the world. By law, the net revenue from the Congestion Charge must be spent on further improvements to transport across London. The separate T-charge, operating since October 2017 within the same zone, claims to enforce the world’s toughest vehicle emission standard.

According to TfL, traffic entering the original London charging zone has remained stable at 27% lower than pre-charging conditions in 2002. This means that nearly 80,000 fewer cars enter the original charging zone each day. Cycling levels within the zone are also up by 66% since the introduction of the scheme.

However, the scheme also has its critics, with most concerns relating to the impact on businesses within the zone and the regressive nature of the charge.

Edinburgh also proposed a charging scheme in 2002, followed by Manchester in 2008. More recently still, Transport for Greater Manchester revived the earlier proposals for Manchester, albeit targeting pollution rather than congestion, and Edinburgh City Council has also followed suit. However, the earlier Edinburgh and Manchester schemes proved extremely unpopular when put to the local electorate, with about three-quarters of votes opposed, on very respectable turnouts. And the political controversy surrounding such schemes is already apparent, however, with newly elected Manchester mayor Andy Burnham reportedly rejecting such plans (for now).

Figure 1: Referenda on UK city congestion charging schemes

204_Congestion charging_Figure 1_graphic_746x99
Sources: BBC News (Edinburgh), BBC News (Manchester)

In short, therefore, only one scheme has become operational in any British city in the last 20 years. So what about the future?

The London scheme shows that congestion charging is technologically achievable, and the likely advances in technology (plus those which we already have, such as mobile phone tracking) mean that schemes would be much cheaper and technically easier to introduce in the 2030s than in 2003.

But the very clear political opposition to such schemes is a major barrier, even if revenue is committed to transport improvements. Recent proposals have been based on the need to tackle air quality rather than congestion, perhaps reflecting a belief that this is likely to be more popular. Birmingham’s proposed Clean Air Zone adopts this approach. But other technologies, particularly the rise of the electric car, could easily make redundant the emissions reduction rationale of a new zone, forcing politicians back to a congestion rationale.

We suggest that, on the evidence of the last 20 years, at most only one additional British city will have a congestion or emissions charging zone by 2040. And the London scheme? Given that it raises £500m per year and is TfL’s third largest source of income, we predict it will comfortably celebrate its thirtieth birthday in 2033. However, we argue elsewhere, it may easily be delivery vehicles bearing the brunt, rather than private cars. Taxis and private hire vehicles are currently exempt, but it may be that their proliferating use (with our without a driver) prompts a rethink on that too.

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