The Congestion Charge has a number of possible functions:
- To reduce congestion
- To reduce private car use
- To discriminate against higher-emitting cars
- To reduce motor traffic
- To reduce CO2 emissions
- To reduce other pollution (particulates, NOx)
- To encourage public transport use
- To raise revenue
- War against the motorist
- Class war
It is difficult for the Congestion Charge to reduce congestion when so many vehicles are exempt. Clearly, the more full or partial exemptions you have, the less effective the charge will be. So to reduce motor traffic, CO2 emissions and pollution most effectively, you need as few exemptions as possible. This will also encourage public transport use. The case for penalizing higher-emitting vehicles should be based on reducing CO2 emissions or revenue-raising. However, if you rebate the charge for lower-emitting vehicles, you're in danger of creating more congestion.
Restricting the congestion charge to the central zone means that any benefits are also restricted to that zone, and there may be increased congestion around the periphery as drivers 'skirt around' the zone. That said, congestion tends to be self-limiting, as faced with enough delay drivers will change their transport habits. Significant problems with the structure of the Congestion Charge are that once you've paid it, you can drive as much as you like that day, and if you live within the zone, you pay only a nominal charge. There's certainly a case for looking at the structure of the Congestion Charge and seeing if it can be improved to reduce congestion over more of London more effectively.
To raise the most revenue, the Congestion Charge needs to be less effective in meeting the first seven objectives. However, congestion and pollution bring costs, so any revenue gain may be wiped out. For example, less congestion will enable buses to use less fuel and get around quicker, reducing their running costs. The Congestion Charge will bring in revenue because it is very hard to stop people driving, but it's important that revenue-raising is not, and never becomes, the primary objective.
It's important that the 'war on the motorist' and 'class war' charges don't stick, so congestion charging needs to be equitable and rooted in the objectives of reducing congestion and emissions.
So what is Ken planning on doing?
"Boris Johnson’s policy to scrap the Western Extension of the Congestion Charge is a mistake that I would reverse."
On balance, a positive move, although I'd like to see the structure of the charge and the zones revised.
"create a Wi-Fi service which tells drivers, via their mobile phones, when they are near an available parking space."
The rationale for this is that drivers tend to circulate while looking for a parking space, adding to congestion.
So it makes sense to help drivers find parking spaces. However, if you make driving easier, you're in danger of attracting more traffic.
"tackle the disruption to roads caused by utility works."
Yeah right. This is a lot easier to talk about than it is to actually do. Plus there is the problem of suppressed demand: reducing roadworks makes more roadspace available, and will attract more traffic, until the road system again reaches it's 'steady state' of congestion.
"introduce a form of emissions-based charging on new cars entering the congestion charge zone meaning that new cars with the worst carbon emissions will pay more, whilst the least polluting cars pay less and older vehicles will pay no more than the basic congestion charge."
There are some real dangers in this policy. It's a good idea on CO2 grounds to discriminate against higher-emitting cars, but it is not a good idea to reduce the charge for lower-emitting cars, because this will result in more cars and hence more congestion. Exempting older vehicles is very dangerous. You can imagine wealthy bankers buying old supercars to dodge the charge, the result being even worse emissions and pollution. The policy will need to be a bit more surgical to avoid loopholes like that.
What is Ken not doing on congestion?
He isn't doing much to tackle outer London congestion or emissions. However, the outer London problem is somewhat different, because the public transport alternatives are not as attractive and car-dependency is more deeply ingrained. I'll address this in a separate post.
Ken isn't tackling taxis. Black cabs and private hire vehicles make up probably 70%-80% of traffic in central London, and many cab journeys could easily be made by public transport. No transport policy worth its salt can avoid the issue of taxis, especially as current black cabs are among the worst polluters per passenger mile of any vehicle.
Politically it is difficult to take on the black cab lobby, however there are plenty of measures that could be taken to reduce the trade's effect on congestion. I'm always at pains to point out that this is not an anti-cab blog. Black cab drivers provide a world-renowned service, cause relatively few crashes, and with a few exceptions are good, relatively law-abiding drivers. If only the rest of the commercial driving sector could claim as much. Therefore, measures to limit cab use should be done in a way that respects and preserves people's livelihoods. That said, we can't shy away from tackling emissions.
You'll notice a lot of cabs are driving around empty, looking for a fare. Technology-based solutions could enable these 'dead miles' to be minimized, reducing costs for cabbies and reducing congestion.
, dispensing advice on the best route, plus a London smartphone app could be provided to make it easier for visitors to navigate London without relying on cabs.
It would make sense to license smaller 4-seat vehicles with much lower emissions than the full-size cab, again reducing costs for the trade.
The public sector, including the BBC and local and central government, need to increase their use of public transport and reduce their use of private cars and cabs, and private-sector organizations should be encouraged to do the same.
There need to be steps to control proliferation of private hire vehicles. While this trade is now regulated, it is not well-controlled, and given these vehicles are congestion-charge exempt, it's possible that it's used in congestion charge avoidance schemes. There's a good case for eliminating congestion charge exemption for both private hire and black cabs.
Relatedly, the number of cabs (both black and private-hire) needs to be reduced. This could be done either by raising fares, or by freezing the granting of new licenses. In parallel, the Mayor needs to make public transport better, faster, subjectively safer and more accessible, so that it's an attractive alternative to cabs and people travelling alone late at night are not afraid to use it.