Road user charging – what next for London?

Whether it's targeting emissions in London, or congestion in New York, user charging is back in the news.

When you look at London's roads – their congestion, emissions, the intense competition for space between different modes wanting to use them, the city's rising population and falling roadspace – it's tempting to conclude that it just can't go on like this.

When London First commissioned a YouGov survey of Londoners recently, we found that the majority agreed: with more than half feeling their journey has become more congested in the last three years; nearly three quarters in favour of emissions charging; and over six in ten wanting congestion and emissions charging combined in the future.

The problem of too much of the wrong types of traffic wanting to be on London's roads at the same time is a frog that has long been on the boil. The city has in the past managed to turn down the heat, most notably with the introduction of the Congestion Charge in 2003. That led to immediate and significant cuts in congestion (down 30% by 2006), traffic levels (down 15%) and pollution. It fundamentally changed the traffic mix in London too – and has kept it changed – by cutting down radically on private car use in the charging area: the number of private cars entering the charging area has fallen by a quarter in the past decade.

The trouble is that the heat under our poor old frog has built up again. While the Congestion Charge has been highly successful, and raises revenue (over £1.3billion for the bus network alone) for investment in public transport to boot, it is a very blunt instrument.

It only operates in a very small area of London – effectively TfL zone 1. It is on/off – just one level of charge – and carries a perverse incentive to 'make the most' of having paid it because you are charged only once for entering the zone per charging period, no matter how many times you do enter it. It carries significant exemptions – most notably for black cabs and residents, now that the one for private hire vehicles has been taken away. Londoners were supportive of modernisation here when we asked them in our YouGov survey, with a majority (57%) in favour of taking the charge to a more sophisticated on/off peak model as we have on the Tube and trains.

And it is only a charge. If it is worthwhile for you – or more likely your employer – to make that journey in charging hours despite the charge; then the charge itself becomes a (useful) instrument of revenue, but not a deterrent. Freight, logistics and servicing traffic is a classic example of this.

So perhaps it's more accurate to say that while we can stumble on like this, we really shouldn't. The time has now come for London to look afresh at what it wants from its roads, and what it doesn't.

Modernising congestion charging is an obvious next step for London as it strives to be an even more pleasant, human-scaled place in which to be. We already have the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) in central London, a significant step in tackling air quality which is planned to extend further across the city by 2021, ideally alongside complementary action to help people move to cleaner cars, cycling and transport; and the coming years will see tolling of the Blackwall and forthcoming Silvertown Tunnels The process of cohering all of these charges together has to be done right – and looking at extending the areas covered by charging that at least, in part, targets congestion, is also the right thing to look at in our view.

But we should also recognise that all that won't be enough. The original Congestion Charge did not arrive solo, it was part of a package: a very large expansion in bus services; significant extra infrastructure prioritising buses; taking out parking on the red routes.

The time has now come to consider the next generation package of measures for London's roads: how to reverse the decline in bus patronage; how to bring down the obstacles to freight, logistics and servicing traffic being even more efficient and travelling at less congested times. Knitting all this together has to be more of a guiding mind than we currently have. That means TfL and the boroughs co-ordinating as never before, including on parking, and a level of data sharing and analysis that would strike new ground for London.

Richard Dilks is the Programme Director for Transport at London First