Congestion charging cuts car usage in Central London
London’s congestion charging model, implemented in 2003 in Central London and then later expanded to Western parts of the city, is still more than a decade later the largest implementation of its kind in the world. The objective: reduce congestion by bringing about a modal shift away from single passenger vehicles in central London. The ultimate success of the scheme can be attributed to the presence of a political champion, a detailed implementation strategy, and careful stakeholder management.
The congestion charging area involves a network of over 600 cameras1 at 174 entry / exit points across 21 square kilometers.2 The cameras record images of vehicles entering and exiting the zone. To charge drivers, vehicles are matched with the database of registration via an Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) system.
The sheer size and complexity of the project meant technological and operational challenges were bound to be there. However, the scheme also encountered some political and social challenges with a huge task of achieving support for the initiative and then managing stakeholders who resisted the scheme. Here, the leadership of Ken Livingstone, then mayor of London, as a political champion was critical. The mayor along with a few employees of Transport for London (TfL) devised a strategy to gain support from stakeholders by engaging them throughout the design of the scheme.
In July 2000, Livingstone published a discussion paper ‘Hearing London’s Views’ and shared the paper with nearly key 400 key stakeholders including London boroughs, MPs, Members of the European Parliament , business groups and transport operators. In January 2001, the mayor released ‘Transport Strategy’ for public consultation which received 8,000 responses, most of them favoring the proposed scheme.3 This approach allowed for a host of modifications to the scheme, many of which are now considered critical to the general acceptance of the congestion charge. For instance, the 90 percent discount given to residents who live within the road charging zone.4
On the technology front, the city deployed proven technologies to reduce the risk of failure. TfL developed predictive go-live scenarios which were used to test operational and emergency decision-making processes prior to launch day. This approach helped TfL transition from a focus on project and implementation risks towards active contingency planning. On the operational front, the city developed operational processes to be used once the scheme went live.
Ultimately, the scheme went live in February 2003. Since then, the scheme has delivered significant traffic reduction benefits in central London. After the first 12 months of the scheme, measurements of congestion indicated an average reduction in congestion of 30 percent. The traffic flow has reduced in London and is more pronounced in central London, where vehicle kilometers fell by 23 percent between 2000 and 2012.5 Further, car usage in central London fell 53 percent between 2000 and 2014. During the same time, bus and bike commuting usage increased 60 percent and 203 percent, respectively.6
The charging scheme underwent many changes since its launch. For instance payments have moved from simple SMS based to a direct Auto Pay option that collates monthly payments and charges the credit or debit card.7 The scheme has also freed-up space in the congestion charge zones, which TfL has used to prioritize public transport, pedestrian, and bike traffic. However, in recent years, the increase in road works by utilities, general development activity, and a huge construction boom in London have slowed traffic speeds in the congestion charge zone.8 Further, the emergence of car-hailing and e-commerce companies in London have led to more vehicles on the road, thereby increasing the traffic congestion in the recent year.9
From 2003 to 2013, about £1.2 billion of net revenue from congestion charging has been invested in developing bus network, road and bridge improvement, walking, and cycling schemes.10 The investments in alternative modes of transportation has greatly increased the quality of life of London residents.