London's road pricing scheme is the first big transport idea since rail privatisation. The rest of the country - and the world - is watchingby Graham Bowley / March 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
On a recent Friday morning, outside the Iceland supermarket near Clapham Common in south London, a crowd of 20 people waited for a bus. It was 7.55am. Nearby, commuters jostled past the stone clock above the tube and down towards the trains. Outside Starbucks, a red light had caught a pack of traffic led by a Mercedes hatchback. Faces pressed against windscreens, drivers waited for the stream of buses and lorries emerging from Clapham Park Road to spend itself out.
This was commuter country. Clapham is a typical residential district that each day supplies the capital’s inner core with thousands of workers-secretaries, bankers, accountants, journalists, nurses, bureaucrats and cleaners. Travelling by tube, train, bus, car or bike, they join the hundreds of thousands of other commuters streaming from the outer suburbs further south. Standing amid Clapham’s noise and crowds, you get a sense of the ebb and flow of the human tide of 1m people washing into central London each day, a pattern repeated in large cities all over the world.
These patterns seem like the unalterable rhythms of modern life. Yet, in London at least, the patterns are about to change. By the time you read this, the capital’s new congestion scheme-which charges drivers ?5 to enter central London-will be in force. You will know whether it has been an early, muted success, or whether the chaos caused by technological failure, drivers seeking routes to avoid the charge, or mass civil disobedience, has marked the beginning of the end of mayor Ken Livingstone’s political career. Most likely it will be somewhere between the two.
Livingstone, so constrained in other ways, has latched onto congestion charging-an idea dreamed up by the free-market right-as his chance to go down in history. And his experiment is being closely watched in big cities around the world. Failure will deal a blow to the growing number of people who believe charging is the only way to prevent the motor car from bringing our 21st-century cities to a choking, deafening standstill.
Since 1952, the number of kilometres driven by British cars and vans has increased by almost 1,000 per cent. During the same period, road capacity has grown by just a quarter. Rising prosperity-along with suburbanisation, school choice and the decline in neighbourhood living-generates more travel. And as people have got richer and vehicles and fuel have got cheaper, there has been a massive shift away from rail and buses to the automobile. It is a trend that has happened all over the developed world, but in Britain, where 71 per cent of households have regular use of a car, the attachment is particularly intense.
The result is road links at least two and a half times more congested than in Italy, Germany and France. In London, over 40,000 vehicles an hour rumble into the city centre between 7am and 10am, when average speeds drop to less than 10mph.
THE SPEED FLOW CURVE
For decades, city planners and economists have reckoned they can explain what has been going wrong. The standard analysis is the speed-flow curve. It looks like the stretched right-hand half of a circle and shows that the more traffic uses a road, the slower it goes, until just as flow reaches its maximum, the overload causes all vehicles to stop. It has the counter-intuitive conclusion that if everyone chose a slower form of transport, the bus, then everyone would travel faster than if they had taken the faster method, the car-even allowing for the extra time spent waiting at the bus stop or walking to the final destination.
The trouble is that telling people they should travel more slowly has never been popular. That is why politicians in the late 1950s and 1960s ignored what the speed-flow diagram was telling them and tried to build their way out of congestion. This was known as “predict and provide”-forecast the traffic, then build enough roads to accommodate it. It left us with our modern motorway network as well as eyesores like London’s Westway and the Elephant & Castle roundabout.
It was abandoned partly because, in London at least, there was no room left, and partly because the miles of fresh blacktop simply could not keep up with traffic growth. The new consensus is that building roads makes congestion worse. People who used public transport to avoid traffic begin using the new roads. Even schemes like park-and-ride can create more traffic because people will now drive to catch the new coach service.
But simple “predict and provide” road building was also abandoned because of a change in the political climate. People may have wanted more new cars but they began to realise they didn’t want any of the new roads built near where they lived. In 1989, the Tory government produced a white paper, “Roads for Prosperity,” with a wish list of 500-plus roads, most of which never got built. In the era of Nimbyism and Swampyism, major road construction became much harder. Faced with an inexorable growth in car traffic, planners and politicians had to come up with something different. What they came up with was the attempt to make public transport more attractive-initially through privatisation-and now the idea of road pricing.
Road pricing has been discussed in free- market circles since the 1960s; indeed, Margaret Thatcher’s favourite economist, Alan Walters, wrote one of the first academic papers on it. But through environmentalism it crossed over to the left too-the first pamphlet that Patricia Hewitt, now trade secretary, wrote for the Institute for Public Policy Research was a defence of road pricing. The economic justification for charging drivers is that roads are a scarce resource and they should be priced the way we price other limited resources, like electricity or air flights. At the moment, they are free, which gives travellers an incentive to overuse them. Phil Goodwin, professor of transport policy at University College London, has said: “It is one of those cases where Adam Smith’s individuals pursuing their own best interests do not add up to Jeremy Bentham’s greatest good for the greatest number. The benefit can only be delivered by intervention, either in allocating road space-bus lanes and so on-or pricing.”
Trying to reconnect Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham via road pricing was too bold an idea for the government-Labour has been at its most timid and populist over transport policy, especially since the fuel tax protests of autumn 2000. Hence Livingstone has been left to stake his claim. If it works Labour will encourage its rollout in other black spots. If it doesn’t-the government will hope to remain untarnished. It is said that No 10 is privately doing all it can to help the experiment succeed.
IN THE CONTROL CENTRE
To form a more educated guess as to whether it will work or not, I went to see Derek Turner, managing director of street management at Transport for London, the mayor’s transport agency. As the man who ultimately controls the computers that control the capital’s 4,656 traffic lights, he is responsible for the changing rhythms of our city streets. His eyes will also be behind the cameras after congestion charging begins on 17th February, watching for trouble.
I met Turner at the brand new London Traffic Control Centre (LTCC) at an address in central London. “You can’t say exactly where it is,” said Turner, a tall man of 49 years with short, greying hair and steel-rimmed glasses. Why? “Because we’re slightly nervous about any action,” he said, meaning the threats of sabotage from protest groups like the Motorists Against Detection (MAD). I agreed not to describe the building and Turner led me through twisting corridors to a balcony overlooking a large windowless room. A dozen or so engineers worked in the glow of 18 large “plasma screens.” (Turner has around 200 technicians working in the building in total.) The screens displayed changing images beamed from the 700 closed-circuit cameras installed around the city. The nearest monitor showed buses and cars cluttering Camberwell New Road. Turner said proudly, “On the inner ring road we now have total visibility.”
Earlier, in his office, I had asked Turner what traffic conditions were like that morning-when the Central line on the tube was closed after a crash at Chancery Lane and the firefighters’ strike had shut around 19 other stations. “Fair,” he said, “the issue is uncertainty for people as they settle down and change their patterns. Yesterday it was chaotic, but the system adapts. People find a new equilibrium.”
When traffic engineers discovered that building lots of new roads was out of the question, they turned to traffic management to cut congestion. In London, Turner led the way, with red routes to clear roads and special bus lanes. Outside the capital, the Highways Agency is experimenting with similar plans to “add capacity by other means” by using motorway hard shoulders at peak times and so on. But the most effective way of managing all the different demands made by the users of our city streets is still the traffic light. The network of London’s signals is connected to computers in the control centre, where Turner’s engineers can manipulate them through the day to keep the traffic flowing.
“There is a three-way conflict our people are trying to deal with,” he explained, sketching diagrams to illustrate his points. “One, the movement of general vehicles. Two, the needs of pedestrians. And three, moving the bus fleet around the network. Buses are more efficient at moving people than cars.” (Many of London’s traffic signals are adapted to sense when a bus is approaching and then give it extra green time to allow it quickly through the junction.) He added: “What traffic signals do is share out time. This has kept London running. But it comes to a point where even the best technology, the best traffic engineers aren’t enough. When we have maximised efficiency with space, and then with time, the only thing left to do is manage demand-introduce market forces into the allocation of road space, which means pricing it.”
HOW IT HAS WORKED ELSEWHERE
“Red Ken” may be the first British politician to apply market forces to our roads on any significant scale. But he is not the first in the world to do so. In Trondheim, Norway’s third city, cars pay a toll of about ?1 for entry between 6-10am, and about half that for the rest of the day. Initially deeply unpopular, the scheme is now approved of by around two thirds of Trondheimers. Its biggest impact has been to spread traffic more evenly through the day. Other countries like Italy and France have motorway tolls. But these schemes, like those in Norway, were mainly intended to raise revenue, rather than reduce traffic. Singapore is the only big city where anti-congestion pricing has been used on a broad scale since the 1970s. Singaporean traffic is now said to move at an average of 60 kilometres per hour even at peak times.
But countries whose citizens may be less pliant in accepting restrictions on their lifestyles have approached road pricing more cautiously than Singapore. In the Netherlands two years ago, schemes to introduce toll booths around Amsterdam, the Hague and Rotterdam became a fiercely contested political issue and were eventually scuppered by a campaign led by the leading Dutch drivers’ organisation. In New York, congestion pricing is used on the Lincoln and Holland tunnels and on the George Washington bridge across the Hudson river, and other bridges. Michael Bloomberg, the city’s mayor, has considered charging tolls on East river crossings too, but has been wary of political opposition.
Livingstone may not be the first innovator, but his step into widespread congestion pricing is the politically bravest to date. Todd Litman, director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in Canada, told me: “The London project will show to what degree you can implement this in a democratic country where people consider themselves consumers and not just citizens.”
HOW IT WILL WORK IN LONDON
The London scheme covers an area of around eight square miles, a rough circle bounded by Marylebone and Mayfair to the west, Bloomsbury to the north, the City to the east, and Kennington to the south. Around a quarter of a million vehicles use this zone each day and from 17th February all of them will be captured on Derek Turner’s cameras. Computers will issue an ?80 fine to anyone who by midnight on the day of travel has not paid the ?5 charge (there is a reduction for prompt payment). Charges and fines together are forecast to raise around ?130m annually for the city’s coffers, although the scheme will only begin to pay for itself after two years because of hefty start-up and running costs. Nevertheless, it will be an important source of revenue for the mayor whose ambitions have been limited by the fact that he has few other means of raising cash. Livingstone has said he will spend most of it on buses and safer roads.
Lorries, which were going to have to stump up ?15, will now pay the same charge as everyone else after lobbying by the Freight Transport Association. Motorbikes, disabled drivers, taxis, and environmentally-friendly cars are exempt. Residents living within the zone pay only one tenth of the charge. The scheme operates between 7am-6.30pm Monday to Friday. This was put back from 7pm after London’s theatres complained that people who liked to travel into the capital before 7pm for a pre-play drink would be put off. “The rows were savage,” said one observer close to the negotiations. Many people feel bitterly aggrieved. Nurses, teachers, and other public service workers who won’t be exempt, complain that they can’t afford to live in central London, but sometimes need to drive.
What will be the effect of the charge? Turner and his engineers say their models predict a 10-15 per cent decline in traffic within the zone. “It will be like it is during the school holidays, but all the year round,” Turner says. A possible guide to what may happen in London is Britain’s experience in 2000 when a spike in world oil prices caused people to use their cars less, although-Ken and Derek beware-this ended in the fuel tax protests. Perhaps one effect will be that London will become even more of a 24-hour city, with those people who can do so travelling and working at night. Others may share cars or ditch them altogether and take public transport. The mayor calculates that 20,000 extra passengers will use tube, train and bus after 17th February. Buses will assume most of that strain-about 15,000 extra bus passengers are forecast-which is why the city is buying several hundred new ones. Commuters crammed onto the tube and trains-which currently take almost 90 per cent of public transport commuter traffic-will be glad to know that they’ll have only one extra ex-car passenger per carriage. Any more than that, though, and the tube will strain to cope.
What Transport for London really hopes is that “unnecessary” journeys that cross into the zone-like taking the car to buy a pint of milk, even the school run-will be eliminated. Drivers further out may avoid the zone completely, travelling instead around the perimeter road. It is here that pessimists predict the most trouble. Their scenarios include tube stations swamped as commuters drive to the charging border, park, then take the tube. Or the perimeter road itself, already busy, will grind to a halt-a seething, thwarted, mass of steel and exhaust fumes-while surrounding residential streets turn into deadly rat runs.
At the LTCC, on the day when many Central line commuters were already angrily stuck in jams, Turner was confident his system would cope. He describes the way drivers will behave in the weeks following the introduction of the charge as “hunting.” “They will go one way the first day, try a different route the next day, until they discover what’s best for them,” he said. Should any route or district become crowded with these “hunters,” Turner will be watching, ready to zap the clogged streets with more traffic signal “green time.” Already, he has prepared the lights on the boundary road to cope with greater orbital, as opposed to radial, flows. Local boroughs, too, have been given millions of pounds to improve the orbital roads so the hunters keep moving and to set up schemes like speed bumps to prevent them cutting corners.
The engineers expect driver behaviour to settle down within about three months, but there may be longer-term effects. People could buy a moped or even move house to within the zone. Companies may relocate. Stephen Glaister, professor of transport and infrastructure at Imperial College, suggested there could be parallels with the “ring of steel” security cordon around the City financial district: “The ring of steel greatly reduced the traffic flow, the crime rate fell, and this was reflected in a rise in rental prices inside the City and a fall in building insurance.”
WINNERS AND LOSERS
Drivers who can afford, and are willing to pay for, a better service will have clearer roads. Businesses will enjoy more predictable journey times, important for deliveries and meetings. People who live in central London should have a tenth less pollution and noise to put up with. The 85 per cent of Londoners who don’t travel to the office by car will have a better working environment when they get there.
Yet the capital’s motoring minority has shouted itself hoarse with protests. Motoring groups like the AA believe that even if traffic falls by as much as the mayor has predicted, the difference will hardly be noticeable. Paul Watters, head of roads and transport policy at the AA, said: “Drivers will end up sitting in the same queues they were sitting in before, except now they’ll pay for it.”
Certainly those drivers who won’t pay the charge will be deprived of their warm and self-contained (if slow) journeys into work. They will lose out. But this is the whole point: they shouldn’t be making the journey if they’re unwilling to pay for the extra congestion, pollution, and noise they cause. “The whole principle is to face people with the true cost of their decisions,” says Stephen Glaister.
Other critics maintain that the charge unfairly hits the poor. But this seems hard to believe when nearly two thirds of the poorest households in Britain do not even own a car, and that number is probably higher in the capital: the real issue for them is the cost of public transport. David Begg, chairman of the commission for integrated transport, a government advisory body, and supporter of congestion charging, said: “This is overwhelmingly progressive. It increases the charge on a mode of transport not well used by the poor-the car-and puts it into public transport.”
The congestion that has turned London’s streets to suet also clogs the rest of the country. Alistair Darling, the transport secretary, may soon want to introduce tolls on Britain’s motorways. But if charging fails in the capital, applying it elsewhere will become almost impossible. The whole world is now watching to see if London’s congestion charging can finally dampen our love affair with the car.
That same day that had started in Clapham in the morning rush-hour, found me at 4.45pm on Blackfriars bridge. The sun was setting, pink clouds silhouetted the Oxo Tower… People, the river, traffic congestion-warts and all, this was the London the world knew and had got used to. For a moment I felt a pang of regret that soon this could be changed forever. Even the eternal jams on the Embankment might be a thing of the past. A second later, I realised I was holding my breath. When I breathed in, I choked on the fumes.