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This is an archived article published in March 2004
London’s congestion charge
cuts traffic jams by 30 per cent

By James Monaghan

London Mayor Ken Livingstone’s central London congestion charging system celebrated its first anniversary in February 2004 to general acclaim at home and abroad. Despite of the prophets of doom and even some of its supporters back in 2003, the centre of the UK capital has achieved and maintained its figure of 30 per cent fewer traffic delays inside the charging zone compared with the period before charging was introduced.

Transport for London (TfL), the city’s transport authority, told City Mayors: “Estimates of year-on-year changes in traffic levels show a reduction of 18 per cent in traffic entering the zone during charging hours." In the first six months after the introduction of the scheme in February 2003, the reduction had only dropped by 16 per cent. This is a small but gratifying sign that central London’s streets are becoming safer and more congestion- and pollution-free.

Ken Livingstone, who became London’s first ever directly elected Mayor in 2000, had made transport one of the main planks of his campaign. He stressed the need to ease traffic congestion in central London by persuading people to switch from private cars to public transport. He promised to do this by introducing a congestion charge while at the same time dramatically increasing the number of buses on London roads. Under the scheme, private car drivers entering central London pay a daily fee of five pounds (eight dollars) with heavy goods vehicles paying the same.

To a large extent, Mr Livingstone’s claims to City Mayors in July 2003 seem to have been vindicated. He said then, “It has helped to get London moving again after years of choking traffic. London has become the first of the great world cities to set about substantially reducing congestion in the central area.”

The congestion-charging scheme was at the heart of a larger transport strategy designed from the outset to tackle four key transport priorities for London: reducing congestion; improving bus services; improving journey time reliability for car -users; and making the distribution of goods and services more reliable, sustainable and efficient. It has also been designed to raise significant funds to improve London’s transport system.

The London congestion charge was strongly opposed by Conservative members on the London Assembly (London’s municipal council) and 'The Evening Standard', London’s evening newspaper. The paper’s prediction of traffic chaos never materialised. London’s public has always supported the scheme, while opinion in the business community was divided. Office-based businesses were largely in favour of congestion charging because it was likely to ease travel to work for their staff. Some retailers, on the other hand, claim loss of trade. The Labour Party initially adopted a wait-and-see attitude, but now welcome it since Mr Livingstone rejoined the Party.

‘Congestion Charging: Update on scheme impacts and operations’, released at the first anniversary by TfL claims among other things that,
• Buses continued to experience significant gains in reliability in and around the charging zone with up to 60 per cent reduction in disruption caused by traffic delays.
• There has been a year-on-year increase of 29,000 bus passengers entering the zone during the morning peak period, for which sufficient additional public transport capacity has been provided.
• When over 700 businesses inside and just outside the charging zone were asked if they supported congestion charging zone, as long as there is continued investment in public transport, 60 per cent agreed, around 20 per cent disagreed. Only 12 per cent said the congestion charge affected business performance.
• On the other hand, net revenues from the scheme are less than anticipated. Instead of raising more than £100 million during the scheme’s first year, “congestion charging contributes £50 million of net transport benefits to London’s economy per year, mainly through quicker and more reliable journeys for road and bus users”. This is partly explained by TfL’s claim that 50,000 fewer cars per day were being driven into central London since the introduction of the charging scheme – although they also claimed that the number of people entering the centre of London had only fallen by some 4,000 in 2003.

Some controversies remain. TfL is carrying out a public and stakeholder consultation on behalf of the Mayor, who is proposing to extend the present central London charging scheme westward into Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster. If accepted, the proposals, which are widely accepted by the Liberal Democrats, opposed by the Conservatives and found to be too restricted by the Greens, would not be implemented before 2006.

TfL also released a report in early March 2004 into Transport in London and its national ramifications. The report warns, “Inadequate transport will limit office development, job creation, house-building and the efficiency of the labour market” unless heavy investment in the transport system takes place.

Within a decade there will be the equivalent of 19 more passengers on each carriage of the Tube (the London underground rail system) during rush hour. Some trains currently are already leaving their first station with no seats left.

The dire warnings are partly due to political manoeuvring to increase central Government funding for transport, but in general congestion charging is becoming less of a hot issue and the Mayor is moving into other areas such as energy efficiency

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