Management & Operations

London congestion pricing scheme set to begin in February

Posted on January 1, 2003

Though London has a population similar to that of New York (about 7 million), it has half of the density over twice the area. That means a lot of commuting into the city. And the population in London is expected to increase 700,000 by 2016. To help solve the associated transportation problems, the city is instituting congestion charging, which is a process similar to collecting tolls but a little more high-tech. “London is a world city, but our transport system is not entirely fit for the 21st century,” Derek Turner, managing director of street management for Transport for London, told attendees at a Washington, D.C., symposium held by the Eno Transportation Foundation. “The transport system has been starved for decades, and we don’t have the space to increase it.” That has led to a decrease in performance and capacity, causing increased costs, harming business efficiency and worsening the quality of life. People and businesses are losing about $6.40 to $10 per week. For most commuters, 50% of their time is spent in traffic queues with an average speed of less than 11 mph, Turner said. The transport strategy determined by London Mayor Ken Livingstone as part of his political strategy includes improving bus service in the short term and tube and rail in the long term. There will be a 40% increase in the capacity of buses and trains serving the capital by 2011 and in new traffic links to improve access development in east London. Finally, his intent is to reduce congestion, primarily accomplished by congestion charging. The idea of congestion charging has been discussed in London since at least 1960. In 1999 the government finally gave Livingston power to introduce the scheme. After 18 months of public consultation, the scheme will be introduced on Feb. 17, 2003. The congestion charging zone will comprise central London, which 1 million people enter every day. “We’re talking about changing the habits of a relatively small number of people,” Turner said. “The economic impacts won’t be seen for five years.” Commuters will be charged a flat fee of $8 per day, Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. “Five pounds a day won’t have a business impact since parking in the retail area is £5 an hour,” Turner said. “The impact will be on people driving through.” Drivers will be able to pay the fare by mail, telephone, retail outlets or the Internet. The fee has to be paid on the same day, but late payments are accepted up to midnight, primarily for travelers and those unfamiliar with the system. After 10 p.m., the charge becomes $16. The payment is only collected once, when the vehicle passes into the boundary. Vehicles entering and exiting the central London area will be monitored by camera to make sure they have paid. Once vehicle data is recorded by a camera, the image is scanned and added to a database. That image is then matched to payment based on the vehicle’s registration number. “Little people will escape, but it’s an enforcement issue,” Turner said. “Because it’s an enforcing system, it is very flexible.” If no matching payment is found, meaning a commuter did not pay the fare, a penalty charge is issued. If no payment is then received, a warrant may be issued and the vehicle may be clamped or removed. “We’re not doing this to raise revenue or as a taxation system,” Turner said. “Our goal is to reduce traffic ... and improve the transport system in terms of freeing up the roads.” Discounts and exemptions to the fare do apply to such vehicles as buses, coaches, alternative-fuel vehicles, emergency services and the disabled. There is also a 90% discount for residents inside the zone. Signs will be placed around the city, noting where the congestion charging zones are and their hours of effect. The congestion charging scheme aims to do several things, which will begin to be apparent six months after the program begins. It aims to decrease traffic in central London 10% to 15% by bringing fewer vehicles into the city, and to cut journey times and traffic delays by about 25%. More public transportation may also be used, resulting in less traffic inside and outside the zone. The scheme will bring $208 million in net revenue which, by law, must be invested in transportation facilities in London. The cost of starting the program is about $320 million. In the short term, that revenue will be used to improve bus operations, reduce fares on public transportation and better maintain roads and bridges. In the long term, it will be used for increased Underground and rail capacity, new Thames Gateway river crossings and improvements to London’s road systems. A major public information campaign has been underway since October to make sure all Londoners and residents of other affected boroughs know of the scheme. A call center was opened and a leaflet was distributed to every household across Greater London. Advertising has also been done on TV and radio, in newspapers and online. A Website,, was also established to answer any questions. In an opinion poll conducted by the Evening Standard in September, 46% were in favor of the charging scheme and 43% were against it, despite the fact that a January 2000 survey showed that 93% wanted action on congestion. The issues that remain include presenting the congestion charging as part of an overall strategy, improving public transport and implementing traffic management measures. “There’s a lot of work to do, but it’s not critical for day one,” Turner said. “There is no other alternative. This policy’s hour has come. If not publicly accepted, I really don’t know what we’ll do.”

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