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London needs just one road user charge, says report

First publishedin ITS International
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London: a lot of roads – and congestion is not confined to the centre of the city © Paul Liversage | Dreamstime.com
London’s patchwork of road charging schemes should be replaced by a single, distance-based user charge, according to new research. Apart from anything else, it would be much fairer…

The UK capital’s multiple road charging schemes require a radical overhaul, according to a new report by the Centre for London thinktank. The suggested solution is to replace existing levies on drivers with a single, distance-based user charge which would more fairly reflect how much, and at what time, people are using London’s roads.

Green Light: Next generation road user charging for a healthier, more liveable, London (by Silviya Barrett, Martin Wedderburn and Erica Belcher) cites a number of cities – including Singapore, Stockholm, Oslo and Milan – where it says congestion has been reduced via the introduction of some type of road charging scheme.

London already has a congestion charge (CC), introduced in 2003, which is levied on vehicles entering the centre of the city, and has this year launched ultra-low emission zones (ULEZ), which charge people for driving in outer London and are specifically aimed at improving air quality. The report argues that both are flawed: the CC because of “the pace of growth in London and changing travel patterns” over the last 16 years, and ULEZ because it does not reflect the level of vehicle usage. “A driver who drives 1km is charged the same as one who drives 50km,” the report says. “Both the CC and ULEZ can be seen as unfair to people on low incomes.”

They will also have to change. By 2025, the report predicts Londoners could have to navigate five separate charging schemes, “with different vehicle standards, hours of operation, charge amounts and payment arrangements”.

Instead, it suggests the creation of a single London transport platform, City Move, “that allows users to compare, plan and pay for journeys across the full range of modes, including tube, train, bus, car, cycling and walking. The platform would proactively suggest cheaper, faster or healthier journey options and offer a number of added driver services”.

The report explains: “New technologies and changing public attitudes now present an opportunity to replace the current patchwork of road user charging schemes with a more sophisticated system that captures the true cost of journeys.”

Drivers would be charged per mile, with prices set in advance and varying according to vehicle characteristics, distance travelled, availability of local transport options – and even taking into account local congestion and pollution levels.

The report argues that such a scheme would reflect the true impact of individual vehicle journeys, and would be integrated with London’s wider transport system, accessible via an app and digital platform.

On the one hand, the need for this might seem slightly counter-intuitive: after all, people (especially younger people) are driving less, and are able to work from home more, which has led to a drop in private car usage. However, this has been offset by three very modern phenomena: the rise of the gig economy, the availability of ride-hailing apps and a consumer culture which increasingly expects on-demand deliveries. Taken together, these have in fact led to an overall increase in demand.

Total vehicle kilometres across Greater London have increased slightly in the last few years, particularly in outer London. The report says that total vehicle kilometres by light goods vehicles (LGVs) increased by 33% between 2000 and 2017.  From 2013-17, the number of licensed black taxis increased by  4% - but licensed private hire vehicles (PHVs) were up 75%.

Green Light says London’s drivers lost 277 hours to traffic jams in 2018, costing £4.9 billion in direct and indirect costs – which amounts to £1,680 per driver.

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dreamstime_s_78897785 © Lorna Roberts  Dreamstime.com.jpg
London mayor Sadiq Khan is urged to introduce a new road pricing scheme © Lorna Roberts | Dreamstime.com
And it is not just those in private cars who find themselves fuming behind the wheel: bus speeds in London “have been declining faster than anywhere else in the UK”, and passenger numbers are down as a result. Yet buses are efficient, the report points out: “4.5 times more people can be transported per hour by an average occupancy bus in the same area of road space, than by car.”

Having said that, part of the rise in congestion has come from London’s “proactive reallocation of road space to bus and cycle lanes”. Getting travellers onto buses and bikes is a good move – but “roads and streets still provide for 80% of all journeys in the capital”. With population and economy growing, the answer cannot be ‘more of the same’.

Taking average vehicle delay as the measure, “London now ranks as the sixth most congested city in the world and the most congested in western Europe”. In central London, these delays “increased by 46% in the 10 years to 2016”, the report says.

There is also the question of pollution: cities all over the world recognise that road transport is a major contributor to poor air quality, and that this in turn has a negative health impact. Around half of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter air pollution in London is estimated to stem from road transport. Reducing road usage is the key to improving the situation, the report says.

Hence, the City Move suggestion. This multimodal account “should be linked to the individual, rather than the vehicle, enabling a fairer approach to charging, including targeted discounts and options to split the charge between passengers”.

Charging levels “should be set to achieve specified objectives and reviewed annually against these”. In turn, revenue “should be directed exclusively to meeting these objectives, and spent on London’s roads, public transport and associated environmental and public realm measures”.

As well as a web platform and smartphone app for registration, journey planning and payment, some sort of in-vehicle satellite navigation or smart app would be required for journey verification, while extra roadside cameras are suggested to enforce it.

There could be a ‘delay repay’ guarantee, giving drivers “a partial or full refund where a journey takes significantly longer than expected”, and a system of mobility credits to encourage take-up and green behaviours.

City Move: recommendations

• The Mayor of London and Transport for London should develop options for a new distance-based road user charging scheme, and aim to launch by 2024
• They should develop a customer platform, upgrading the required GPS and mobile network capacity, and conducting a pilot
• The user platform should be introduced across London from the beginning, with the charging regime gradually extended, starting with areas of high demand and poor air quality
• The mayor should collaborate with other cities across England to introduce elements of the distance-based variable scheme in the implementation of clean air zones
• The government should work with regional leaders to replace existing vehicle and fuel taxes with a national distance-based system.

One of the report’s main points is that equity is a very real issue at present: “The way that roads are funded in London is complicated and in several respects curious, if not plain unfair.”

For a start, London does not receive a proportion of the National Roads Fund - although London drivers must pay vehicle excise duty, which makes up the fund.

Also, while the cost of driving in the UK has fallen (in part because fuel duty has been frozen since 2010), regular commuters on bus, tube and rail have seen their costs rise consistently. Fares paid on the Underground (which makes an operating surplus, the report says) go to support, among other things, maintenance and investment in London’s roads.

That is before you mention the argument that drivers “do not pay fair compensation for the wider negative impacts they cause on society as a whole, in terms of the economic cost of congestion and the health costs of pollution”.

It tends to be the poorest who suffer the most: “People living in the capital’s most deprived areas are, on average, exposed to about a quarter more NO2 pollution than those living in the wealthiest areas, and nearly a quarter of London schoolchildren are exposed to illegal levels of air pollution.”

These groups contribute to the problem the least, the report adds, since middle income households have the highest car ownership, while low income households “rely especially on buses”.

In short, people are not paying enough for many of the journeys they make by car. Green Light comes up with a couple of interesting general points. Analysis of the impact of such a scheme shows “there would be no disproportionate disadvantage” to any particular user group.

And strikingly, its modelling reveals “that if drivers on the most congested roads are charged the equivalent of a cup of coffee or a bus ticket, emissions and air pollution could be reduced by up to a fifth”.

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