Has London lost its way in the battle to cut car use?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 December, 2008, 12:00am


Hailed as an environmental asset and revered for its wide net, London's Congestion Charge Zone continues to incite controversy today as it did on its debut five years ago.

Few topics have so polarised Londoners. Advocates are fast to point to reduced emissions, faster journeys around the capital and a shift towards a greater use of public transport.

Its critics are equally quick to question whether it has eased congestion: driving around the city centre remains an exercise in patience during peak hours. The fact that revenue from the levy has tended to be ploughed into buses rather than road improvement has also irked some.

A promise late last month to scale back the zone by nearly half has fuelled this debate. A somewhat rushed decision to widen the zone early last year to include the residential area of west London has been reversed after fierce protests.

The issue became a focal point of the mayoral election in May. New mayor Boris Johnson promised to consult on the topic and, late last month, announced a dramatic U-turn on the extension barely a year into its operation.

It is a move guaranteed to win him public support, but has done little to dispel controversy. Resident groups who battled against the extension are happy. Although it will not come into effect until 2010, they claim paring back the zone will bring traffic back to small firms and retailers in the area.

Critics, however, fear the return of vehicles opting to park close to the zone, with congestion levels set to soar and air quality to worsen. This could also be a missed opportunity to tweak the system, seen by many as in desperate need of an overhaul.

Business lobby groups have for years been urging a revamp of the levy on private vehicles, in particular the blanket approach to charging. Anyone who enters the zone between 7am and 6pm Monday to Friday is liable to pay a flat rate of GBP8 (HK$92). Vehicles are filmed via CCTV entering and leaving the zone, and failure to pay results in a fine of GBP60, which increases to up to GBP180 if not settled promptly.

Today the congestion zone remains the largest of its kind in the world and the reference point for many a city contemplating some form of road pricing, including Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has mooted the idea of electronic road pricing at least twice in the form of consultations; political support, however, has not been forthcoming and the city's response to congestion in Wan Chai and Central in particular will take the form of an underpass.

London's panacea for gridlocked roads, in contrast, has been focused on charging road users. Former mayor Ken Livingstone was initially credited with unclogging the city's busiest streets when the zone took effect in early 2003. The zone's first day saw a 25 per cent reduction in traffic and, by the end of the first three months, this figure reached 40 per cent, according to Transport for London findings.

The streets felt less busy, more cyclists started appearing, and buses and the underground saw increased volumes.

But by last year the benefits were becoming less apparent. Journey times were deteriorating: initial improvements of 30 per cent decreased to 22 per cent, and the reduction in congestion had shrunk to just 7 per cent, according to the transport agency.

In its annual report for this year, the agency admits: 'Decreasing levels of road space in both the original and western zones has caused congestion to return to levels experienced before the charge was introduced.'

It cited a doubling of road works, mostly utilities-related, as the principal reason.

But Gordon Taylor, chairman of the West London Residents Association, is doubtful. 'Road works have always been a way of London life,' he says.

For the past 51/2 years Mr Taylor has been lobbying against the western extension, not as a stand against road pricing in general but against the 'nonsensical' idea that it should cover residential areas.

He drew upon potent research from the Centre for Economic and Business Research, which suggested job losses of more than 6,000 in the area due to the extension and a GBP250 million a year hit to businesses. In addition, 59 per cent of vehicles using the western extension had an exemption - mostly because they were electric cars or low-emission vehicles. Mr Taylor is not surprised at the U-turn but remains adamant that underlying problems with the charging zone persist.

New bus lanes and pavement-widening schemes have squeezed available road space while there has been a rise in the number of green vehicles that are exempt from the charge. Nor is the net revenue generated as impressive as in other countries with road pricing.

In London, costs are 42 per cent of revenue, according to figures by lobby group London First. This compares to 28 per cent in Stockholm and just 18.5 per cent in Singapore.

'We have got to drive down the costs of running the system and have a more flexible charging system,' says Mr Taylor.

It is a sentiment shared by many. John McGoldrick, co-ordinator of lobby group the National Alliance Against Tolls, explains: 'The costs of implementing the scheme and then of running and trying to enforce it with many drivers trying to evade payment means that there is relatively little profit compared with the billions spent on public transport.'

Yet there remains a potent voice for the zone to retain its wide net and deterrent value. Richard Bourn of the Campaign for Better Transport believes the decision to scale back the zone is to the detriment of London road users.

'It does a huge disservice to the cause of the congestion zone generally, for which London had received enormous acclaim,' he says. 'Ten years ago London had a reputation as a real laggard in transport ... London did manage to turn itself around.'

In reverse

Critics say driving in the city centre remains an exercise in patience during peak hours

When the zone went into use in 2003, the first day saw congestion relief of: 25%

By the end of the first three months, this figure had gone up to: 40%

But by last year the reduction had shrunk to just: 7%