Introduction

The London Congestion Charge, introduced 15 years ago in 2003, is necessary for maintaining steady road traffic flow within the 8 square mile central London area it covers. In an article titled, “The London Congestion Charge” by Jonathan Leape, it was found that all-day average travel speeds increased by 17% from 8.9 mph in May/June 2003 to 10.4 mph after the Congestion Charge was implemented. Initially introduced as a £5 charge in 2003, the fee gradually increased to £8 in 2005, then £10 in 2011, and, finally, £11.50 in 2014 (£10.50 for registered cars with auto pay).

Maintaining a fairly high Congestion Charge fee is essential for deterring drivers from entering the zone. According to data from Transport for London, the 2011 increase caused monthly traffic within the zone to drop from a peak of nearly 6.2 million cars in September 2010 to 3.6 million in January 2011. Further confirming the effectiveness of this strategy, 2017’s figures remain consistent with 2010’s initial decrease. Although there was a peak of 3.9 million cars in November, traffic throughout the year averaged 3.5 million per month. In December 2017, there was even a drop to as low as 2.9 million.

In an effort to keep cars moving while increasing pedestrian safety in the Congestion Charge zone, speed limits will reduce from 30 mph to 20 mph on all roads in the area by 2020. Although, seemingly counterproductive, studies show reduced speed limits actually leads to better traffic flow. As part of Vision Zero, the initiative aims to push 80% of drivers to use public transport by 2041. With less cars moving through central London at steady, consistent speeds, air quality is likely to improve. Following the Congestion Charge zone’s initial traffic drop of 65,000-70,000 daily inbound trips (Leape), Vision Zero will turn the zone into a much quieter area.

Congestion Charge map and times

The central London Congestion Charge zone encompasses the City of London, West End, and Parliament. Driving through the zone is only charged between the hours of 7AM and 6PM on weekdays (excluding public holidays). Residents living within the zone are entitled to a 90% discount. They also do not need to pay if their car is parked off-street or in a resident parking bay. Motorcycles, bicycles, buses, and taxis are exempt from the Congestion Charge. Additionally, vehicles used by disabled individuals, alternative fuel vehicles, emergency vehicles, and certain vehicles used by medical staff and firefighters are excluded from the charge.

Penalties

When drivers enter the Congestion Charge zone, video cameras at each entry point automatically take a photo of their car’s license plate. At the end of each day, the number of paid customers is cross-checked in a database of all captured license plates. If there is no match, drivers are automatically mailed a penalty notice. With a 70-80% success rate, and a 85-90% detection rate (Leape), it is not worth risking a fine. When the Congestion Charge began, the number of penalties peaked at 40,000 per week in 2004. Echoing the point mentioned above of how an increased fee for entering the zone influences drivers, Congestion Charge penalty notices dropped to 30,000 in 2005. This is also when the charge was raised from £5 to £8.

The current fine for not paying to drive through the Congestion Charge zone is £160, which is discounted to £80 if handled within 14 days. Although pre-payment is encouraged, it is possible to add your license plate number to the database after driving through the zone. To avoid a penalty, a Congestion Charge payment must be made before midnight each day. The post-payment amount of £14 is slightly higher than the £11.50 pre-pay charge, but is still better than receiving a fine. Whenever possible, plan in advance before driving through central London.

2020 Congestion Charge zone speed limit

Initially implemented in the City of London in 2014, the Vision Zero plan intends to greatly reduce pedestrian deaths caused by cars. According to the initiative, fatalities are 5 times less likely to occur from a car traveling at 20 mph vs. 30 mph. Expanding to all streets within the Congestion Charge zone by 2020, as described above, the goal is to continue reducing speed limits throughout the greater London area. Additional locales include Camden, Hackney, Hammersmith & Fulham, Haringey, Islington, Lambeth, Lewisham, Southwark, and Tower Hamlets. It is also worth noting the new 20 mph in the Congestion Charge zone does not affect current pricing. They are two separate programmes operating in the same area.

Vision Zero case study – New York City / worldwide

In 2014, New York City lowered its citywide speed limit to 25 mph. Consequently, in July 2018, the city mayor, Bill de Blasio, reported the lowest number of fatalities ever measured in a 6 month period on city streets. In addition to reducing speeds, New York City’s Vision zero action plan pushed for stronger enforcement techniques. “The numbers show it’s working. The city recently announced that 2017 was the fourth consecutive year with declining traffic fatalities under Vision Zero, with pedestrian deaths falling by 45 percent since 2013 (Curbed NY).” Originating in Sweden in 1997, Vision Zero policies are implemented around the world with great success.

Environmental impact

Following the launch of the Congestion Charge zone in 2003, Sean D. Beevers and David C. Carlslaw’s study “The impact of congestion charging on vehicle emissions in London,” found that overall emissions dropped by 12% (compared to 2002 figures). This decline in noxious gases directly resulted from a 30% total vehicle decrease in the area. As policies within the zone, including Vision Zero and increased fines for high emissions vehicles, continue to change, the potential for cleaner air in central London increases. Spanning from the Congestion Charge zone increase in 2011 to June 2018, Transport for London data shows that Nitrogen Dioxide levels (caused by idling cars) dramatically declined from 71.9 ug/m3 to 39.4 ug/m3.

Imposing the Vision Zero 20 mph speed limit only continues to improve air quality in London. When speaking with the BBC, Labour AM John Griffiths comments on the benefits of slower speed limits. “You will get better traffic flow through these urban areas which means, counter-intuitively, motorists will get through these areas quicker than they do at the moment. Emissions will be reduced because it will be a smoother passage-through rather than a lot of accelerating and braking.”

Conclusion

As London continues to develop programmes to keep traffic flowing through the city while creating a safer, cleaner environment for pedestrians, initiatives like Vision Zero maked perfect sense. With an expected population of 10.8 million by 2041, the way drivers interact with Greater London’s urban landscape needs to change. Even though Transport for London earns revenue from programmes like the Congestion Charge zone, it is reinvested in other projects – benefiting the entire Greater London region.

Reports sourced

Beevers, S., and D. Carslaw. “The Impact of Congestion Charging on Vehicle Emissions in London.” Atmospheric Environment 39, no. 1 (2005): 1-5. doi:10.1016/j.atmosenv.2004.10.001.

Greater London Authority. Mayor’s Transport Strategy. London: Greater London Authority, 2018.

Leape, Jonathan. “The London Congestion Charge.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 20, no. 4 (2006): 157-76. doi:10.1257/jep.20.4.157.

Mayor of London. Travel in London: Report 10. London: Transport for London, 2017.

Mayor of London. Vision Zero action plan: Taking forward the Mayor’s Transport Strategy. London: Transport for London, 2018.

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