Ten years of the Congestion Charge: Fewer cars, less pollution and a positive impact on business

Ten years ago this month the Congestion Charge was introduced in London by Mayor Ken Livingstone. It has resulted in fewer cars on the road, less pollution and has had a positive impact on business. What's not to like?

Ten years ago this month the Congestion Charge was introduced in London by Mayor Ken Livingstone.

It’s easy to forget today when it is such an established part of the capital’s scenery, but in 2003 the idea of charging car users to drive around the capital was met with near-apocalyptic warnings from motoring groups and the Right-wing press.

The £5 charge would “destroy” the city’s commercial heart and cause “total gridlock“, warned some.

It would “cause misery to thousands of commuters across the capital”, said Conservative Greater London Authority’s transport spokesman Angie Bray at the time.

“Livingstone has ensured Londoners will suffer conditions worse than cattle trucks on their morning commute into work,” she added.

Since it was introduced in 2003, however, the charge – which is now £10 – has not caused gridlock, but rather has resulted in a gradual reduction in traffic levels, as the graph below shows.

Congestion charge

On 23 October 2003 TfL published a report surveying the first six months of the charge. The main findings were that, on average, the number of cars entering the central zone was 60,000 fewer than the previous year, representing a drop in non-exempt vehicles of 30%.

The charge also had an immediate environmental impact, with Transport for London recording falling particulate levels within the original congestion charge area and along the Inner Ring Road boundary zone. Nitrous Oxide (NOx) fell 13.4% between 2002 and 2003, and there were similar falls for Carbon Dioxide (CO2) and Particulate Matter (PM10).

It is on the back of these sorts of figures that other cities have sought to emulate London. Stockholm has now introduced a congestion charge and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been trying in vain to introduce one since 2006 in the face of powerful opposition from motoring groups.

A congestion charge is also being considered in Delhi; and Singapore and Oslo already have toll systems similar to London which pre-date our own Congestion Charge.

In terms of the effect the charge had on local businesses, despite the scaremongering which accompanied its introduction, the Fourth Annual Review by TfL in 2004 found that business activity within the charge zone had been higher in both productivity and profitability since the charge was introduced, and that the charge had a “broadly neutral impact” on the wider London economy.

Of course, the predictable motoring interest groups still oppose the Charge, but even their own polls show it’s broadly supported by a majority of Londoners, with 45% for and 41% against.

The success of the idea, which emanated from the office of Ken Livingstone at a time when he had been abandoned by the Labour Party, is confirmed by the fact that even the Tories now back the measure.

One might even say that the Congestion Charge was one of the most successful policies of the past 10 years. Fewer cars, less pollution and a positive impact on business. What’s not to like?

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