This report by Professor John Whitelegg scrutinizes the possibilities for developing the existing London congestion charge as a response to concerns about future levels of congestion, air pollution and health and economic efficiency. These concerns are important policy considerations at any time but against a background of forecast increases in population and economic activity in the Greater London area they become more important still. World Streets is more than pleased to share this original work with our readers, not less because we take a strong stance against the introduction of technology-based road pricing in cities of the Global South, where it is our view here are more effective ways of achieving the goals of traffic reduction and much-needed new sources of income for public and non-motorised transport. Let’s see what John has to say in this timely report from a London perspective.
“Put in very clear language it is our view that a London-wide road pricing scheme is essential and without it congestion will worsen, air pollution will worsen, the legal consequences of failing to meet air quality standards will grow in severity and fall on the GLA, the health of Londoners will suffer, CO2 reduction targets will be missed and London will stand no chance whatsoever in achieving “best in class” status that it so richly deserves. If this scenario unfolds in this way the consequences will be more severe still because competitor cities are not marking time. They are racing ahead. Almost every major European city is already achieving the success that London may find elusive and the gap will widen and London will slip further down the rankings at an accelerating pace with unwelcome consequences for jobs and inward investment.”
Pay as you go: managing traffic impacts in a world-class city
This report was commissioned on behalf of London Assembly member, Darren Johnson AM by his support team at the London Assembly. It was undertaken by Eco¬Logica Ltd, Lancaster. It was written by Professor John Whitelegg and reviewed by Professor Phil Goodwin and Professor Chris Nash.
As a result of many years of effort to reduce traffic congestion and create an attractive choice environment for walking, cycling and public transport, travel within central London now has a majority of movement by public transport, walking and cycling.
But in spite of this, car traffic still has a dominating presence even in the centre and London as a whole still presents a strong image of a car dependent city with all the negative environmental and quality of life consequences that flow from this. Traffic levels are high enough to deter walking and cycling and the perception of danger on London’s roads is high.
High traffic levels are an obstacle to a more sustainable, low carbon city future and contribute to a number of negative health and environmental effects that detract from quality of life in London. Air pollution and noise levels in London are linked to a number of serious health consequences and dealing with these public health problems requires a step increase in traffic reduction and traffic danger reduction interventions.
It is also accepted that the economy of London is damaged by congestion and the perception that street quality, accessibility and environmental impacts may not be as good as could be experienced in Frankfurt, Berlin, Paris, Barcelona, Vienna or Zurich. Economic damage occurs through the loss of inward investment, the flight of existing jobs out of the GLA area, the loss of time in business trips and the uncertainties and costs surrounding logistics in a congested city environment.
Projections for congestion growth in London up to 2031 (“Briefing on projections for congestion growth in London up to 2031 and current policy responses, Report to Transport Committee, 28 February, 2011) are a cause for concern and require some bold thinking about policies to reduce congestion at a time when population and economic activity are likely to be growing. The Transport Committee report of 28.2.11 draws the attention of policy makers to a possible 20% increase in congestion in the next 20 years, an economic loss of £2-£4 billion pa as a result of congestion and 4000 deaths pa as a result of air pollution:
“..over 4000 deaths in London each year are in part attributable to poor air quality”
Para 3.5 of “Briefing on projections for congestion growth in London up to 2031 and current policy responses”, Report to GLA Transport Committee, 28 February, 2011
This is a remarkable and unacceptable catalogue of problems that sits uneasily with the aspiration that London will be “the best big city in the world” (Boris Johnson in the GLA 2010-2012 Strategic Plan, Update for 2011-12, Final Version, June 2011, Appendix 1).
Making London “the best city in the world” absolutely requires significant progress with all the issues raised under the congestion heading. The existing congestion charge has been in existence since February 2003 and is widely regarded as successful. It certainly ranks as a significant achievement in a world class city and has been considered for adoption in New York, copied in Stockholm and is in the
design stages in Toronto and Milan. All the political parties in the recent Danish election are committed to introducing congestion charging. The congestion charge in its present form brings a number of advantages that are of special relevance to London, but the big question is whether these same advantages can be expanded greatly by wider implementation over more parts, or the whole, of London.
Advantages that can be claimed for this include:
- It reduces traffic levels and this reduction makes a welcome contribution to reducing air pollution, noise and greenhouse gases
- Half a century after the last major public health and quality of life intervention in London there is another challenge to be dealt with. London was a pioneer in the 1952/53 debate about the urgent need to reduce or eliminate deaths from the infamous “pea-souper smog” and policy makers responded boldly to that threat. 4000 Londoners died in the 1952 smog episode and this led to the Clean Air Act of 1956 to eliminate this threat. London now faces another challenge. There is clear evidence (House of Commons, 2011) that 4000 Londoners are dying each year as a result of poor air quality that is almost entirely generated by traffic. Pay as you go pricing can play a significant role in reducing this number
- It sends a powerful message to all 7.6 million Londoners that something is being done to bring about an improvement in quality of life and that year-on¬year increases in traffic are simply not acceptable and that the alternatives to the car work perfectly well in this city. Business as usual is no longer an option.
- It generates a stream of revenue that is available for investment in public transport, walking and cycling and this supports sustainable transport objectives. This hypothecation of revenue is crucially important and must continue. It encourages a higher level of public support than would be the case if it were “just another tax”. Public support is very closely linked to concepts of fairness and equity. In the context of London with millions of trips being made by public transport, walking and cycling it is self-evidently fair to levy a charge on the much smaller number of car trips that cause a much larger environmental burden than non-car trips. If that revenue is then deployed for the benefit of all Londoners and for a cleaner, greener London then that is likely to win and retain public support.
Given the fact that Londoners are used to congestion charging and that the charging regime demonstrably contributes to improvements in quality of life it is appropriate to explore the possibility of extending the charge or a road pricing variant of the charge across the whole GLA area. There is currently nothing else on offer or even on the radar screen of transport policy that has the 5 main ingredients of what is required to deal with the severity and urgency of London’s congestion problems:
- A policy that reduces traffic volume to an economically efficient level
- A policy that meets with a degree of public approval
- A policy that has been shown to deliver results
- A policy that is widely seen as fair
- A policy that delivers a revenue stream that can be applied to all that needs to be done to improve walk, cycle, public transport and the built environment that supports these alternatives to the car
The London congestion charge is approaching its 10th birthday. It covers 1.3% of the GLA area (not including the Western Extension Zone), it is supported by the Mayor as a possibility for future policy development (GLA, 2010, Appendix 1) and it is appropriate to carry out a “refresh” exercise to see if the range of benefits and improvements in quality of life can be extended both geographically and in terms of the numbers of those benefiting. This Eco-Logica report carries out this refresh process and argues that the time is right to extend congestion pricing or road pricing to all 7.6 million London citizens. . . .
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About the author:
Managing Director of Eco-Logica, John Whitelegg is Visiting Professor of Sustainable Transport at Liverpool John Moores University, Professor of Sustainable Development at the Stockholm Environment Institute, and founder and editor of the Journal of World Transport Policy and Practice. Research interests encompass transport and the environment, definition of sustainable transport systems and a sustainable built environment, development of transport in third world cities focusing on the relationships between sustainability and human health, implementation of environmental strategies within manufacturing and service industry and development of environmental management standards. He has published widely on these topics. John is active in the Green party of England and Wales and is the national spokesperson on sustainable development.
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