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London Congestion Charge

New Congestion Charge sign at a roundabout

The London Congestion Charge is a fee that is levied on all motorists entering the Central London area. Although London is not the first city to adopt congestion charging, it is the largest city to do so as of 2003. The organization responsible for administering the charge is Transport for London (TfL).

The fee was introduced on February 17, 2003. The daily fee of 5 (approximately 7.50 or US$8) must be paid by the registered owner of a vehicle entering, leaving or moving around within the Congestion Charge zone between 7 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., Monday to Friday.

The aim of the scheme is to encourage travellers to use public transport, cleaner vehicles, bicycles, motorcycles or their own two feet instead of motor cars and vans, thus reducing congestion and allowing for faster, less polluting and more predictable journeys. TfL says that much of the money raised in the scheme will be invested in public transport.

Another city with a congestion charge is Singapore.


Table of contents

The charging zone

Map showing outline of the scheme's charging affected area
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The boundary of the zone is sometimes referred to as the London Inner Ring Road. Starting at the northernmost point and moving clockwise, the major roads defining the boundary are Pentonville Road, City Road, Old Street, Commercial Street, Mansell Street, Tower Bridge Road, New Kent Road, Elephant and Castle, Vauxhall Bridge Road, Park Lane, Edgware Road, Marylebone Road and Euston Road (other roads fill the small gaps between these roads). The zone therefore includes the whole of the City of London, the city's financial district, and the West End, the city's primary commercial and entertainment centre. There are also 136,000 residents living within the zone (of a total population of around 7,000,000 in Greater London), though the zone is primarily thought of (and zoned as) commercial rather than residential. There is little heavy industry within the zone. Drivers do not need to pay to use roads on the boundary. Over the Christmas and New Year period, 2002, markings were painted on all roads entering the zone to warn drivers of their need to pay the charge.


Technology and enforcement

Congestion charge mobile camera van. Inset: sticker on back door
Larger version

Two hundred and thirty CCTV-style cameras, of which 180 are installed at the edge of the zone, record a stream of video of roads in the zone. There are also a number of mobile camera units which may be deployed anywhere in the zone. It is estimated that around 98% of vehicles moving within the zone will be caught on camera. The video streams are then transmitted to a data centre located in Central London where a computer system equipped with Automatic Number Plate Recognition (OCR) software deduces the registration plate of the vehicle. A second data centre provides a backup location for image data.

Although this process is not infallible, the process only needs to have a reasonable probability of success to have a deterrent effect. It appears that both front and back number plates are being captured, on cars going both in and out. This gives up to four chances to capture the number plates of a typical car entering and exiting the zone.

There are fifty additional camera installations within the zone intended to increase the probability of catching vehicles that have entered the zone without being caught on entry or exit.

This list is then compared with a list of cars whose owners/operators have paid to enter the zone. Those that have paid but not been seen in the central zone are not refunded but those have not paid and are seen are fined. The registered owner of such a vehicle is looked up in a database provided by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA), based in Swansea. The fine is 80 (~€119 or US$127). From 10.00 pm the charge is doubled to 10 (~€15, US$16): this is intended to cut the number of last-minute payments.

Some vehicles such as buses, minibuses (over a certain size), taxis, emergency service vehicles, motorcycles, alternative fuel[?] vehicles and bicycles are exempt from the charge. Residents of the zone are eligible for a 90% discount, if they pay the charge for a number of days at once.

Why the Congestion Charge is notable

The congestion plan has attracted a lot of attention for several reasons. It is the first large scale congestion charge scheme to be introduced in the UK (a much smaller 2 scheme has been trialled in Durham). If successful in reducing traffic congestion, other busy cities around the world are likely to follow suit. The plan relies on advanced technology. Drivers may pay the charge on the Web, by SMS text message or by phone. The total cost of implementing the scheme, including setting up the cameras, the call centre for processing payments and advertising to notify motorists of the scheme's introduction is in excess of 250m (~€375m,US$400m). The scheme is expected to pay for itself within three years.

The whole idea has been heavily criticised by some opponents. They argue that the public transport network has insufficient spare capacity to cater for travellers deterred from using their cars in the area by the charge. Further it is said the scheme will hit poorer sections of society more than the rich, as the charge to enter the zone is a flat 5 for all, regardless of vehicle size.

Transport for London contracted Capita to implement the scheme. Subcontractors include Mastek Ltd, based in Mumbai, India, who are responsible for much of the IT infrastructure. They claim that it is the largest project to date implemented using Microsoft's .Net platform. Due to the wide spread around the globe of sub-contractors and because some data protection regulations vary from country to country, the scheme has prompted concerns about privacy from technology specialists (see external link).

Early experience of the London Congestion Charge in action

Congestion charging at Old Street: white-on-red Cs mark the boundary. Inset: driver-facing sign
Larger version

The congestion charge was introduced February 17, 2003. Before the Charge's introduction there were fears of a very chaotic few days as the charge bedded down. Indeed Ken Livingstone (London mayor and key proponent of the Charge) himself predicted a "bloody day". In fact, the first two days saw a dramatic reduction in inner city traffic. On the first day 190,000 vehicles moved into or within the zone during charging hours, a decrease of around 25% on normal traffic levels. Excluding 45,000 exempt vehicles, the decrease was more than 30%. Anecdotal evidence suggests journey times were decreased by as much as half. Just over 100,000 motorists paid the charge personally, 15-20,000 were fleet vehicles paying under fleet arrangements and it is believed around 10,000 liable motorists did not pay the due charge. An extra 300 buses (out of a total of around 20,000) were introduced on the same day. Bus network and London Underground managers reported that buses and tubes were little, if at all, busier than normal. Anecdotal evidence has suggested that crowding - which always a problem at rush-hours on the tube network - has increased somewhat.

Initially it was believed that the reduction in traffic was caused by the half-term school holidays but this has proved not to be the case. Reports consistently indicate that over the first month or so of operation, traffic has been down at least 15% on pre-Charge levels (the first week had a decrease of 20%, the first day 30%). Journey times have correspondingly crept back towards pre-Charge levels, following initial reported time-savings of as much as 50%. Although very precise statistics are less readily available than just after the Charge's introduction, chiefly because media attention is now directed elsewhere, the general feeling is that the Charge is having the intended effect.

Fears that 'rat runs' of commuters skirting around the edge of the zone would cause traffic problems have not yet been realised. Cautious optimism, coupled with a desire to see the promises of major improvements in public transport made good, seems to be a common attitude among London travellers.

History of the Charge

Many previous toll roads and bridges have existed in England, both now and in the past. Tolls became popular in England in the late 1600s following the decline of roads after the Protestant Reformation (Catholic monks no longer maintained the roads). By the end of the 1700s the intercity road network in England was primarily a toll road network of turnpikes. Toll roads eventually died out in the late 1800s due to competition from railroads and complaints from users making longer trips (thus needing to pay more tolls).

Whilst the scheme for a toll on inner-city roads has been widely credited to London mayor Ken Livingstone, Livingstone himself credits the idea of congestion charging to the right-wing economist Milton Friedman, though general road tolls have been advocated by many in the past, such as the 18th Century economist Adam Smith.

Schemes similar to the current Congestion Charge were being considered by the British Government in the mid-1990s. The London Congestion Research Programme (HMSO, ISBN 0-11-551755-3) concluded in July 1995 that the city's economy would benefit from such a scheme. The power to introduce a form of congestion charge was given to any future mayor in the Greater London Authority Act of 1999. Having won the first mayoral election in 2000, Livingstone opted to exercise these powers as promised in his independent manifesto, and carried out a series of consultations with interested parties. The basic scheme was agreed in February 2002 and charging commenced with some concessions accepted on 17th February 2003.

Sign indicating the end of the Congestion Charge area

Future Plans

In the aftermath of the introduction of the Charge, there have been a number of suggestions for the future of the Charge. Soon after charging commenced, Livingstone announced that he would carry out a formal review of the Charge success or failure six months after its introduction - brought forward from one year following the smooth start. On February 25, 2003 Livingstone stated "I can't conceive of any circumstances in the foreseeable future where we would want to change the charge, although perhaps 10 years down the line it may be necessary." referring to the amount that drivers have to pay, indicating that 5 was sufficient to bring about the reduction in traffic that he had hoped for.

Expanding the zone in which the charge applies is likely to be part of Livingstone's manifesto for re-election as mayor in 2004. Commentators agree that the west would be the mostly likely direction for any expansion, possibly including Kensington, Hammersmith and Shepherd's Bush.

Steven Norris, the Conservative party candidate for mayor in 2004, had been a fierce critic of the charge, branding it the 'Kengestion' charge, and has pledged to scrap the charge, should he become mayor.

See also

External links

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