Congestion Charging

Why it's wrong and why it won't work

Or: how to burn money and attack the poor


Although the London Congestion Charge is "off topic" for SafeSpeed I felt I should set out some basic facts and arguments. This article is not supposed to be an in-depth analysis. It is supposed to raise the key issues surrounding the Congestion Charge.

Today (17th February 2003) sees the launch of congestion charging in London. It's a crazy scheme equivalent to burning money. Here are the basic reasons why it's wrong and won't work.

Time is money

For most of the folk using central London, time is already money. There's no reason to believe that charging them extra will discourage them from using the area any more than a small increase in congestion would.

As such congestion is completely self regulating using exactly the same motivations that the congestion charge purports to use. So the congestion charging scheme offers nothing that isn't already there, except an awful lot of overhead expense. 

It's regressive

A tax is called regressive if it charges the poor proportionately more. With a fixed fee of £5 the London congestion charge can be easily paid by the rich, but is very expensive for the poor. For example, £5 times 200 weekdays is £1,000. Someone earning £200,000 per year won't notice, but someone earning £7,500 will be hit very hard.

The edges

Horrid things will happen to traffic flow at the edges of the scheme. People who wish to cross the zone, but who choose not to pay will skirt it which will take far longer and the skirting roads will become more congested. Businesses which rely on local trade who are positioned just inside the zone will lose customers who don't wish to enter the zone to use the business. There are probably hundreds of undesirable edge effects. 

The times

People will queue to enter the zone at the end of the charging period each day. This will lead to roads around the zone being littered with vehicles waiting for that magic second before they enter.


The London congestion charging scheme has already cost some £200 million to set up. Annual operating costs are projected to be £85 million. This is like burning money. None of these costs would have to be paid without the scheme. We're adding bureaucracy and we'll all have to pay for it. The annual costs will continue until the scheme is scrapped. Workers will pass it on to their employers when seeking pay settlements. Businesses will pass it on to their customers. 

Sneaky tricks

There have been many rumours circulating in the run up to London Congestion Charging that extra congestion has been deliberately and artificially created to help make the scheme appear a success. It's frequently been said that altered traffic light phasing, roadworks and other schemes have been timed to make congestion in London worse in the run up to the launch of the charge. We wouldn't put it past them.

We also note that schemes that cause loss of road space, including bus lanes, build-outs and pedestrianisation tend to cause or exacerbate congestion. Sometimes these schemes are designed to reduce the relative efficiency of the car compared with the bus. We don't find it reasonable to cripple the car to make the bus seem more attractive.

Congestion and regulation

There are many self limiting things going on in busy cities. If it takes too long to travel people seek alternatives. If it costs too much to travel people seek alternatives. If it isn't convenient people seek alternatives.

If we did nothing the projections might indicate gridlock, but the projections don't allow for the people regulating their behaviour in accordance with all the prevailing conditions - including congestion.

While travel is cheap enough, fast enough and convenient enough people will use it. Making travel a little dearer by introducing a congestion charge means that it becomes too expensive for some, but faster and more convenient for the rest. But the fact that it's faster and more convenient encourages road travel; especially by the better off.

Self regulation

Perhaps you're worried that self regulation isn't real?

In the last decade on record (1990 to 2000) car traffic in London has fallen by 10%, but congestion has gone up by 10%. Check the figures for yourself in these official documents:

(click here) Table 3, PDF page 10
(click here) Table 4.14

This has happened, not because of traffic, but because of the meddlers: Loss of road, space, loss of parking space, bus lanes, funny traffic light phasing etc.

We say that's ample evidence of self regulation AND daft meddling.

So what will happen with the London Congestion Charge?

At first traffic will be reduced as the poorer folk attempt to avoid the charge. Travel becomes quicker. Then rich folk realize that travel is faster and there are more car parking spaces available, so they start to make more journeys by car and the status quo returns. This process will take about 3 months.

Sadly, once the status quo has returned, we still have all the overhead and all the nasty edge effects of the congestion charging scheme.

Dead bikers

Also very sadly, some of the less well off people will switch to motorbikes and scooters. Since motorbikes and scooters have a relatively poor safety record, and since these new users will be inexperienced, there will be a sharp rise in serious injuries and fatalities in the wider area. We say the wider area because many journeys which start distant and terminate in the Congestion Charging area are obviously affected.

So how much more dangerous are motorbikes than cars? There are official government figures (here). (Table 1.6) Where figures for fatalities per billion passenger km reveal that motorbikers are 42 times more likely to die for each km they travel compared with cars.

TfL and the British Motorcyclists Federation (BMF) are clearly worried about these risks. Read about it from the BMF (here).

What would we do?

It's very simple. We'd do everything affordable and reasonable to make transport of all sorts efficient. We'd provide parking space where possible. We'd build roads where possible and practical. We'd scrap all bus lanes, and allow buses to compete on equal terms with all other traffic. We'd then monitor efficiency and try to help all the traffic to move as efficiently as possible.

When, where and if congestion starts to bite, people will seek alternatives. Congestion will thereby regulate itself at exactly the level that people find acceptable.

We don't accept the idea that some classes of road transport are "better" than others and should be encouraged. The roads are a shared resources for everyone to use as, when and how they choose.

Buses in particular are just about the worst mass transport system. They are slow, polluting, unreliable and cause congestion. They certainly should not be specifically encouraged.

In the long term, we would encourage population reduction in any way we could. Congestion is really the result of overpopulation and plenty of economic activity. 

It takes a busybody or a fool to try anything else. 


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