London: still stuck in a jam

Four years on, the Congestion Charge hasn't got Londoners moving faster. It is a failure of policy, and a failure of imagination.

Nico Macdonald

Topics Science & Tech

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In February 2007, the Western Extension of the London Congestion Charge was introduced. A few selected through-routes aside, people driving in many of the posher districts of West London will now have to pay the same daily charge (currently £8) as those heading into central London. Opposition to the Charge remains muted, yet the scheme has failed to make getting about the capital easier, has undermined important freedoms and revealed an utter lack of imagination about how to solve the modern problems of transport.

The Congestion Charging Scheme, introduced by London mayor Ken Livingstone in February 2003, is perhaps the nearest thing to a bold political initiative in recent years – certainly as regards the capital. Compared to similar projects, the Congestion Charging Scheme represents a successful rollout of a complex organisation and advanced technology, including number plate recognition of a million cars a day.

The Congestion Charge was originally intended to discourage people from driving in central London during the busiest periods. More recently, with the increasingly frenzied discussion of climate change among politicians and in the media, the Congestion Charge is presented as a measure for reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Although the Charge has met far less resistance than almost anyone expected, this sleight of hand reflects the mayor’s awareness that there is more support for measures that purport to counter climate change than those addressed to congestion. This was made clear in Transport for London’s report to the mayor on the proposed Western Extension of the Congestion Charge (2). In the consultation section – reporting the views of businesses and business organisations, local councils, residents’ associations, other representative groups, and members of the public – there is not one favourable comment about the consultation process (3). While these objections appear to be legitimate, they would appear to reflect unhappiness with the proposal itself rather than the consultation.

Now the mayor is looking to expand on this climate change aspect of the scheme by increasing the charge for larger-engined vehicles and removing the discount for drivers of these vehicles who live within the charging zone.

Driving travellers away from alternatives

If we return to the original justification for the Congestion Charge – discouraging people from driving in central London during the busiest periods – and accept that taxation is the best solution, we might question whether the Congestion Charge is fit for purpose.

The mayor could encourage alternatives to car ownership. Beyond using public transport there are three clear alternatives to car ownership for many journeys: car rental, car sharing and taxis.

For some months after the introduction of the Charge, the popular car rental company EasyCar, which had many central London facilities, paid users’ Congestion Charge – and created some populist ‘anti-Ken’ marketing on the back of it. Then, as a result of the burden of the daily levy, it moved almost all its facilities out of the Zone. Enquiries made at the time to TfL elicited a quizzical response, and no definitive view on the desirability of this outcome.

Meanwhile, car clubs are also flourishing in London, a result of the combination of cheap reliable telematics (see Wikipedia for more on the technology), mobile networks, electronic key systems, and online access to availability information and booking. Outfits including StreetCar, CityCarClub, and WhizzGo have introduced to the UK the model developed by US-based ZipCar and others. WhizzGo and Streetcar even offer their services to business users and businesses with car pools.

However, car share vehicles are not exempt from the Charge, except where the car is exempt for some other reason (eg, WhizzGo run cars powered by LPG gas which avoid the Charge). The reason for this, according to TfL’s tortured logic, is that vehicles used under such schemes still contribute to traffic congestion. Streetcar claims that using their service results, on average, in six private cars being taken off the road, and that car club members drive 66 per cent fewer miles per year. Not only are car share users not exempt from the Charge, they may end up paying more than their car owning neighbours who find it easier to claim the resident’s discount. The design of the Congestion Charge Scheme will tend to turn people off this efficient and modern model of car use.

In the case of licensed taxis, early in his reign Livingstone had fares and tariffs increased considerably – more recently throwing in the obligatory environmental charge, set at 20p per trip – to make London’s cabs, along with its public transport system, among the most expensive in the developed world. On top of this, London’s local authorities have recently turned their now ubiquitous CCTV cameras to focus on taxis illegally stopping – while waiting for pre-booked passengers to arrive, get money from an ATM, or make a delivery. Local authorities’ cynical gouging of taxi drivers will only undermine the utility of cabs as an alternative mode of transport.

More generally, the Congestion Charge doesn’t appear to be designed to reduce driving in central London during the busiest periods. For instance, drivers, such as commuters, pay a single daily charge. Once paid, there is no incentive to avoid the charging zone or period when driving back from work. In additional, drivers are able to pay the Charge for a year ahead, which incentivises them to use their car rather than other modes of transport.

The Western Extension of the Congestion Charge Zone will also tend to increase traffic in the original, Eastern, Zone – which was presumably considered to be the most congested – as any Western Zone resident will now have to pay the Charge for driving in their locality, and thus have no disincentive to driving into the centre of London. Nor is it even clear that the Western Extension has been effective. On the day after its introduction a cabbie reported to me that he had experienced no reduction in congestion in the Western Zone, though he had noticed a change, at least for a period, after the introduction of the original Charging Zone in 2003.

The design of the Congestion Charge scheme appears to be more about revenue raising than traffic reduction, let alone reducing carbon emissions. Although this would be a cynical motivation, this is not the key problem with the Congestion Charge model.

There are better ways to manage traffic

With all the focus on the Congestion Charge, it is easy to forget that there are other fairly pedestrian ways in which traffic congestion and flow have been addressed historically, though they barely warrant a mention in the debate as it is currently constituted. From yellow lines to ‘red routes’, coordinating rubbish collection in major streets to managing road works, constructing through routes to digging underpasses, the traditional solutions are all but forgotten in the current, asinine debate.

More broadly, there are interesting debates about historic best practice in traffic management. There is a sound argument, espoused by commentators such as Martin Cassini, that we have too many traffic lights, and may be better off without them – relying instead human intelligence, trust and politeness. Neither is the value of better wayfinding and signage publicly considered, though the reducing cost and ease of use of satellite navigation is helping address some of these issues – a product of private investment unaided by government fiat.

Not only have traditional ways of managing traffic congestion and flow been relegated, but London is continually being made less accessible. In the wake of (what turned out to be) the last mainland IRA bombing campaign, the City of London introduced the ‘ring of steel’ (popularly known as the ‘ring of Lego’ as a result of the use of plastic obstructions). Many major routes were narrowed and checkpoints introduced. Despite the IRA disarming and the fact that modern terrorists using new methods will hardly be deterred by rarely-manned checkpoints, the City is increasingly inaccessible.

Bus and cycle lanes across the capital have taken space from cars. Bus stops extend further into lanes originally intended for cars, and the double-length, articulated ‘bendy’ buses – the high-profile dividend of the Congestion Charge – regularly block junctions. Travel down to the historic artery of London – the Thames – and you will find the traffic flow over Chelsea Bridge substantially reduced by bollards, as no authority has seen fit to strengthen it for modern, heavier vehicles.

In spirit, the Congestion Charge is an unimaginative solution to the challenge set. Although organisationally and technically remarkable, the Congestion Charge represents one of the oldest solutions in the handbook of government – taxation – and is a throwback to the era when merchants entered London on toll roads via turnpikes, and paid taxes on goods when they pass through the City gates.

In reality, it is unclear what problem the Congestion Charge is intended to solve or how the success of the scheme should be measured. The goal of any transport strategy should be to facilitate as many people as possible getting around more quickly, comfortably, safely and economically, and to improve still further in the future. With respect to the first factor the Congestion Charge has facilitated an improvement for some people, in some places, and for a fee. In a Stalinesque fashion, the mayor and others are content to only measure this factor, and on this basis claim success. However, the Congestion Charge in particular, and TfL’s overall strategy in general, don’t increase the collective good.

Low horizons for transport

A number of elements are lacking from the Mayor’s approach to transport, and these extend beyond London’s government and beyond transport policy. They are ambition, imagination and innovation, and humanism.

Real transport improvement requires the kind of inventiveness and innovation that can address all these elements. This spirit was characteristic of the Victorian era, and combined to bring London the overground railway (1836), the tram (1861), and the Underground (1863), thereby improving the lives of every Londoner.

The Victorians not only had ambition, but were able to problem-solve imaginatively and think laterally. Today we find politicians such as Douglas Alexander, secretary of state for transport, stating that ‘Our roads are literally filling up’ and ‘We can’t simply build our way out of this problem’. Academic and government adviser Professor David Begg believes ‘The roads just fill up too quickly’. And Friends of the Earth spokesperson Katie Elliot argues that we can’t expand our road network in the main areas of congestion – cities – unless we want to build through spaces such as Hyde Park. Most schoolchildren can think more imaginatively than this.

A century-and-a-half ago, the Victorians had the imagination to not only build under the parks, but everything else, including the Thames. (They also built through quite a lot of London, including Holborn, Clerkenwell and Shoreditch, as they pursued their own model of social engineering.)

But the anti-road-transport advocates share none of their predecessors’ lateral thinking or imagination. Had they been active in the nineteenth century they would likely have advocated a tax on horse manure – by 1900, 1,000 tonnes a day were being gracefully deposited by horses used in transport – and opposed the expansion of the London Underground. Fortunately for our nostrils, and our health, their spiritual predecessors didn’t prevail.

Today far-sighted engineers propose creating a second and deeper underground system, allowing the Tube to be de-commissioned and upgraded. In 2004 the Evening Standard reported a proposal for the ‘Overground’, an above-ground network linking London’s existing Tube stations. In a report commissioned by the Independent Transport Commission, Imperial College engineering professor Stephen Glaister proposed building tunnels to channel traffic underground in congested areas. The German-American car giant DaimlerChrysler is working on cars that sense their surroundings (next step: convoy driving?), while the office of esteemed architect Frank Gehry is working with Bill Mitchell of the MIT Media Lab’s Smart Cities research group on a prototype urban vehicle that can be collapsed and stacked to park.

We have the innovations. What is lacking is the ambition, best characterised by the interminable delay of the Crossrail 1 and 2 projects to build a high speed inter-connecting rail link across London, which has been in planning for so long that one of the prototype Crossrail carriages has made it into the London Transport Museum’s collection (see Construction and transport: Victorian Britain lives on, by James Woudhuysen).

What is also missing is the humanism. In the modern era, we have seen people as one of the fixed points, or invariables, around which problems are solved – the others being client needs (whether business or government) and resources, with design and technology as the variables. Today, the tendency is to see people as part of the problem, a variable, and to institute the environment or an abstract notion such as congestion as the invariable (see Steering the debate in the wrong direction, by Austin Williams). There is no tangible or meaningful ‘solution’ to abstract problems.

As society has lost any meaningful or coherent notion of progress in particular, or ways of understanding the world in general, our responses to problems tend to be more ‘common sense’. We tend to understand things as we initially perceive or experience them, and end up blaming individual behaviour for broader problems. We blame drivers for congestion and pollution, and tell people they are selfish and should drive less, rather than pursuing ambitious innovation.

Sometimes this blame tendency turns to outright, and often ‘sub-class’, hostility. The mayor’s proposal to withdraw the residents’ discount for those continuing to use inefficient cars – pejoratively and by default now referred to as ‘gas guzzling Chelsea Tractors’ – demonstrates that some politicians still consider verbal and financial persecution in the cause of populism to be acceptable. Based on historical experience, we should be wary of politicians who pick on socially visible groups and imply that they are too wealthy.

Sentiments such as that expressed at an RAC Foundation seminar by the then secretary of state for transport Alistair Darling that ‘The government’s role must be to help people travel not stop them’ won’t do much to stop the tide of anti-humanism in the transport debate – much of which emanates from other ministers.

The car: something worth celebrating – and surpassing

For all of New Labour’s celebration of innovation and creativity, little praise is reserved for the researchers, engineers, designers and craftsmen who create the modern marvel that is the automobile, or the amazing infrastructure – from petroleum production to roads, and mechanics to global positioning satellites – that make it usable. Nor is there any celebration of the wonderful success that is the car, as an industry and in making peoples lives easier and better. For all our craving for innovation and successful new products, we tend to ignore, if not decry, one that has become an integral, and highly successful, part of our culture. This is particularly damning in a country that hopes science and technology, and design and creativity are its economic saviours.

People are not the problem, they are the inspiration. Their needs and desires often motivate the problem solvers. But problem solvers are going to be anything but motivated if the solutions they create go under-appreciated or, worse still, are condemned, and if the people for whom they are created are treated as selfish consumers and polluters.

Back in the land of the Congestion Charge, given that there is little micro-management of traffic congestion and flow, and that there are almost no ambitious or innovative solutions being implemented, congestion is only likely to get worse. The only logical step will be to periodically increase the Congestion Charge, which was first increased, from £5 to £8, in July 2005. Even if the Congestion Charge has decreased congestion for some people, in some places and at some times, the reality is that London drivers will end up continually paying more for what they once had access to at no cost. For Londoners, this represents a cut in quality of life and an infringement on their freedoms. For all New Labour’s claims for our greater economic prosperity, people’s real standard of living is being sacrificed. As Brendan O’Neill has noted elsewhere on spiked: ‘Livingstone’s congestion charge punishes individual motorists for what are officialdom’s own failures.’ (See Welcome to the stay-at-home society.)

Some commentators are at least prepared to admit this. Professor David Begg, a former chair of the UK Commission for Integrated Transport, argues that ‘Building our way out of the congestion problem is not achievable financially and, even if it were, is not sustainable’ (7). Guardian columnist Jackie Ashley urges that ‘with the congestion charge, we should accept that [it will] hit some poorer people’s mobility, stealing a recent freedom away from them… The point is that real political leadership is always about persuading people to forgo things for the general good.’ (8)

Ken Livingstone and New Labour are achieving what a Tory government failed to do over 17 years: get people to gracefully, even gratefully, accept an attack on their standard of living and freedoms. Even some old Tories have come round. Former minister of state for transport, and nominal challenger to Livingstone at the last mayoral election, Steven Norris, had a Damascene conversion on the anti-road campaigners: ‘The protesters had a message, which was fundamentally the right message, namely, that we had, in however a sophisticated a way we could devise, to come to terms with managing traffic, perhaps even seeing traffic volumes reduce. Now that was a sea change. They were the first to say it. However, they did say it – they got it right.’

Even if old Tories have given up on improving life for ordinary people, their supporters in the largely Tory boroughs of the Western Extension don’t seem so enthusiastic. And, although our political leaders don’t like to admit it, ordinary people aren’t yet won over to the unimaginative arguments they present for cutting their standard of living.

Nico Macdonald writes on design, technology and innovation, covering the media, communication and transport sectors. In the national broadcast news he has commented on the end of Concorde and the demise of Rover. His writing can be found at his website Spy.

(1) Cleaning up the Big Smoke: Livingstone plans to cut carbon emissions, Guardian, 27 February 2007

(2) Western Extension to the Congestion Charge, Transport for London, September 2005

(3) Annex B: Theme 21 – Consultation, Transport for London

(4) Rip them out, Martin Cassini, Daily Telegraph, 14 October 2006. ‘It’s for the experts to prove controls necessary… Instead of being held in limbo by the tyranny of mandatory traffic lights, all road-users – on foot or on wheels – should be free to exercise intelligent discretion, and filter in turn.’

(5) London Overground, Evening Standard, 9 June 2004

(6) RAC Foundation: motoring towards 2050 seminar, 26 November 2002

(7) Road pricing is necessary as well as possible, David Begg, Financial Times, 16 May 2005

(8) It’s time to call time on our cheap flight hypocrisy, Jackie Ashley, Guardian, April 15, 2004

(9) Steven Norris in a discussion on Twyford Down, The Reunion , BBC Radio 4, 9 September 2005

Previously on spiked

Kirk Leech discussed Western critics who use China’s environmental record to attack its economic growth. Timandra Harkness explored the Christian environmentalists who ask ‘what would Jesus Drive?’ Alan Miller was attracted to the politically incorrect beauty of the Gumball Rally, in 2002. Or read more at: spiked issue Environment

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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