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Since February 17, 2003, central London has become one huge toll zone, about 4km x 5km (3 miles x 3 miles). If you drive any vehicle (with a few exceptions) into the central area on a work day between the hours of 0700 and 1830, you have to pay a £5 ($7) daily fee. If you do not pay, cameras will pick up your registration plate and issue the owner of the vehicle with an £80 ($120) fine.

Drivers of vehicles registered in The Netherlands, Germany and France should also be aware that the UK has reciprocal agreements with their respective law-enforcement agencies, to pursue non-payers.

All the world's major cities are looking hard at the London experiment. If it goes well, then it is very likely that most large cities will eventually adopt similar solutions to the congestion problem.

Update 11 April 2003 (two months in): it has been interesting. In terms of traffic, it appears commuters have been switching to alternative arrangements, but there is still a base load of people doing the school run. Up until the start of this week, traffic had been nearly as heavy as before the charge, but this week, as the schools have closed, the traffic is once more much more free-moving.

On the down side, there have been many false charges by the cameras. Newspaper reports say thousands of people who have paid the charge are being issued with penalty notices. In my office, one person who has driven in twice, and paid each time, has on both occasions been issued with a penalty notice about 6 weeks after the visit. Fortunately he kept all the receipts and tickets. Be warned, the cameras are far from perfect.

A third aspect is the number of extra bus lanes which have gone in over the last couple of months. Wherever road widths permit, one lane has been co-opted for use by buses only (and taxis and cyclists). Thus, even though there may be fewer cars, it is the buses and taxis which are benefitting from the reduced traffic volume. Motorists are paying the charge, but still suffering the delays.

Update 17 Feb 2003 (opening day): The immediate effect has been very positive. On the run in today there was very little traffic: almost like a holiday, or a quiet day between Christmas and new year. Official data show a decline of around 25 percent on a normal day. Of that 14 percent is due to the half-term school holidays. This morning, Ken Livingstone, the main proponent of the scheme, said the charging zone is likely to be extended. "Residents in Kensington have asked to be included," he said "We will spend the summer discussing where to extend the sceme," he continued.

Update 21 Feb 2003 (day 5): Although it is now clear that the first day was exceptionally quiet, there is definitely less traffic on the roads than before the charge was introduced, and not just in the central zone. While queues still exist, they tend to be around pinch points such as Waterloo station, where there is a disproportionate number of buses and taxis. The normally-clogged bridges are much more free-running than normal, both in the morning and evenings. And it is obvious to all motorists that the risk of gridlock has dramatically receded. A local TV programme found helicopter footage of London's traffic from exactly one year ago. The old footage showed jams and more jams, while the post-charge footage showed traffic running freely around most major junctions.

Update 25 Feb 2003 (week 2): In the first week with near-full traffic volumes, there appeared to be a little more traffic than last week, both on the outskirts and in the centre. Official data shows a decline of roughly 20 percent compared with pre-charge volumes. Blackfriars bridge and the Farringdon Road--my test of congestion levels--was less clogged than before, though it was not as free-running as last week, possibly because of a truck parked in a silly place.

Update 10 March 2003 (week 4): The run in this morning seemed much busier. I think people mighthave got bored with the experiment and just decided to go back to driving. Our office car park is still about half empty, but the roads felt much busier this morning.

Separately, I am in no doubt that the traffic lights have been re-phased. On my homeward journey, there is a stretch (outside the charging zone) which, before the charge, was always solid with cars and with no free run at the lights. Now, that section is a joy, as the lights change to green just as I approach them from the previous set. It all adds to far less congestion around the major routes.

Anecdotal evidence suggest people have switched from cars to public transport. The tube lines are, apparently even more full than they were before the charge, while the car park associated with our office block now has roughly half the number of cars that used to park there prior to the charge.

Update 21 March 2003 (end of week 5): It's definitely busier now. It is still better than prior to the introduction of the charge, but some of the bridges have got more congested. I now avoid Blackfriars again, as it has got too crowded. I think the traffic lights may have been re-phased again, to prevent speeds getting too high (I was caught by a speed camera last night, but well outside the charging zone.


Put yourself in the mind of a resident: If you live just outside the charging zone, you get the drawbacks of increased congestion as people skirt the edges of the central zone, combined with the need to pay whenever you go a few hundred yards. Compare that with being inside the zone, where the congestion is less and the residents' charge falls from around £1000 per year to £100 per year, even if you use your car every day. This zone is going to spread, and fast.

The central area (for charging purposes) initially runs inside the Inner Ring Road. This links Euston Road, Pentonville Road, City Road, Commercial Street, Mansell Street, Tower Bridge, Elephant and Castle, Vauxhall Bridge Road, Park Lane and Marylebone Road. All these roads are exempt, but all roads inside are affected.

The charge applies on all days except Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays.

All vehicles are affected by the charge, but some are either exempt, or have rebates. Exempt vehicles include all two-wheelers (motorbikes, motor scooters, mopeds and bicycles). Also emergency vehicles (Police cars, ambulances fire engines and so on) do not need to pay.

Taxis, licensed taxi cabs, and other vehicles licensed as hackney carriages are also fully exempt. Similarly electric vehicles and dual fuel vehicles do not have to pay the charge.

Those who live in the affected area should be able to claim a 90 percent discount, but they will still be required to pay the discounted charge every time they use their vehicles. If they are parked in the proper place all day, there is no charge. Update: uptake on this pre-registration has been extremely slow.

Motorists can pay the daily fee either in advance, or at any time up to 23:59 on the day of their visit, however, according to the Transport For London website, an extra £5 is added for those who pay between 22:00 and midnight. This is to discourage late payers, says the site.

The fine for non-payers is £80, but like a London parking ticket, this falls to £40 if you pay within 14 days (you will, apparently, be able to make the payment on-line--see www.cclondon.com). Unlike parking fines, the charge increases to £120 if you fail to pay within 28 days. Consistent non-payers risk having their vehicle clamped or getting a visit from the bailiffs.

Why?

Put simply, congestion. The charge is one element of an overall plan designed to discourage motorists from driving into London and offer credible alternatives in the form of effective public transportation. It was thought up by the mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. He aims to reduce the number of commuters who drive to work, displacing them onto public transport, or encourage them to share their cars. This, he predicts, will improve the flow of traffic for businesses during the day.

The money raised will be used to improve public transportation.

Here are some statistics copied from the Transport for London website:

  • 40,000 vehicles an hour drive into the congestion charging zone - equivalent to 25 busy motorway lanes - during morning peak (7am - 10am).
  • Traffic speeds in central London dipped below 10mph in the period 1998-2000 for the first time since records began; there are now no longer any 'peaks' or 'off-peaks' of traffic volume between 7am - 6.30pm.
  • For each week that congestion charging is not in place, London loses about £2 million a week in terms of reduced congestion and forfeits about £130 million in net revenue that the scheme would raise to re-invest in transport in the capital.
  • On average there are 3 minutes of delay for every mile that a vehicle travels in the charging zone; drivers spend half their time in queues.
  • Congestion charging is predicted to cut traffic levels inside the charging zone, measured in 'vehicle miles', by 10-15% and congestion, measured in 'vehicle delays', by 20-30%. Drivers will save 2-3 million hours within the zone and a further 4-7 million hours on roads between the zone and within the North and South Circulars each year.
  • Roughly 250,000 vehicles make 450,000 movements into the charging zone during the period 7am-6.30pm.
  • 136,000 residents live within the charging zone, about half of whom are in car-owning households.
  • Over one million people enter central London by all forms of transport each morning peak, 85% of them by public transport.
  • By the start of the scheme in 2003, more than 200 extra buses will be provided on routes into the proposed congestion charging zone. There will be more than 10,000 extra spaces in the peak hour. Each weekday, 6,000 buses accommodate 4.5 million passenger journeys on 600 routes around London.
  • Bus passenger travel increased by 6 per cent in 2000/01 to 4.7 billion passenger kilometres.
There are ten main points in Ken's plan
  • reducing traffic congestion;
  • overcoming the backlog of investment on the Underground;
  • making radical improvements to bus services across London;
  • better integration of the National Rail system with London's other transport systems;
  • increasing the overall capacity of London's transport system;
  • improving journey time reliability for car users;
  • supporting local transport initiatives;
  • making the distribution of goods and services in London more reliable, sustainable and efficient;
  • improving the accessibility of London's transport system;
  • bringing forward new integration initiatives.

Is there any preparation?

Yes, lots. For a start (according to political opponents) all the phasing of traffic lights in London has been buggered up. The Traffic Light Gods are being capricious and ensuring that there is no free flow of traffic from one set of lights to the next. In my personal experience, it does seem that many lights give greater priority to pedestrians, remaining red to all traffic while a single pedestrian slowly ambles across the road. Or more often, no pedestrians actually use the crossing while the traffic queues build up. The explanation offered by opponents is that once the charge starts operation, the traffic lights will be re-phased, and congestion will ease.

Secondly, and more importantly, there has been a sustained campaign to introduce effective bus lanes in order to improve the journey times on London's buses. This comes under the BusPlus initiative.

Third, the central area is (in late 2002) covered in roadworks as workmen create islands in the middle of busy junctions. To motorists these appear to serve no purpose except that of restricting the flow of traffic, though there is probably some justification in terms of extra space for pedestrians to wait.

Also, there is a lot of preparation on the technology which will allow cameras to photograph all vehicles passing into the zone, and compare them with the registration numbers of vehicles which have paid the fee.

Camera sets will be sited on gantries above each lane of traffic on all roads leading into and out of the zone, and also at strategic points within the zone. The planners expect to identify 90 percent of all vehicles using the central zone on any one day. Each camera set comprises two cameras: one which reacts to colours to obtain 'context data' and the other responds only to black and white, which is used specifically for reading the registration plates.

Update: There are also mobile camera units. A large white Mercedes van was parked outside my office building (in the central zone) for a couple of days recently, with a couple of cameras poking out of the top. It was on a training exercise, so it is clear that these units will also be used, to discourage motorists who find a route which is not watched by the fixed cameras.

The cameras will use digital technology (CCDs), but the individual frame data will be streamed from the camera sites to a central computer in analog form. Here the registration plates will be recognised, and all which have pre-paid will be discarded by a computer matching system. Those which do not have a permit will be written to a CD-Rom or other WORM drive. Finally, those who have not paid by midnight will be manually checked before a penalty notice is issued. All data, according to the TfL website will be encrypted and digitally signed at time of capture to ensure a valid trail of evidence.

Other cities which have congestion charges

Is it a good idea?

Unsurprisingly, the motoring lobby thinks it is a very bad idea. However, the traffic situation is pretty dire in London, and something needs to be done. Ken is doing something and he appears to be the only British politician brave enough to face the problems head on. Maybe this will work, maybe not. Whether it does or not, you have to give the guy credit for such a courageous plan. Good luck to him, I say!


sources and further information

  • http://www.tfl.gov.uk/tfl/
  • http://www.london.gov.uk/approot/mayor/congest/index.jsp
  • http://www.lta.gov.sg/MenuFrame2.htm
  • http://www.citylink.vic.gov.au/pages/h1.html
  • http://www.407etr.com/html/home.html

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