A Republican member of Congress told me last week that he recently was in London for the first time in a long while. “Traveling was so much better,” he said. “You can actually get around. That traffic-charging system they’ve got seems to be doing a lot of good.”
London’s system — known formally as congestion charging — started up 10 years ago this Sunday, on February 17, 2003. In the decade since then it has been meticulously monitored, analyzed and debated — perhaps more than any traffic-managing scheme since Moses parted the Red Sea. It has also spawned a raft of charging programs elsewhere, most notably in Stockholm, and, starting last month, in Gothenburg, Sweden’s second city. Of course, an all-out effort to enact a comparable system here, the proposal to toll motor vehicles entering Manhattan south of 60th Street, died in the state legislature five years ago.
Ten years on is a good time to take stock. Let’s have a look.
What It Is: Cars and trucks pay £10 (roughly $15.60) to drive into or within the charging zone between 7 am and 6 pm on weekdays. The zone is London’s commercial and financial hub and, at 8 square miles, rivals Manhattan’s 8.5-square mile Central Business District. Taxis are exempt, as are qualifying low-emission vehicles. Cars registered to zone residents, who account for 2 percent of Greater London’s 7 million people, pay one-tenth the standard charge.
How Drivers Pay: London’s system deploys 1,360 closed-circuit cameras at 348 sites within the charging zone and on its boundaries to record the license plates of vehicles entering and moving within the zone. The plates are continuously matched against a database of monthly accounts, and “spot” payments are made via Internet or at kiosks, drawing down accounts or billing license-plate holders. This cumbersome system arose not only from the absence in the U.K. of electronic toll collection systems such as E-ZPass when the system was launched a decade ago, but also from the decision to charge for car trips entirely within the zone in addition to vehicle entries. A byproduct is the relatively meager net revenue available for transport improvements.
Traffic Outcomes: In its first few years, the London charging scheme was heralded as a solid traffic-buster, with 15-20 percent boosts in auto and bus speeds and 30 percent reductions in congestion delays. Most of those gains appear to have disappeared in recent years, however. Transport for London (TfL), which combines the functions of our NYCDOT and MTA and which created and operates the charging system, attributes the fallback in speeds to other changes in the streetscape and traffic management: