Green Light: Next generation road user charging for a healthier, more liveable, London


A Bazalgette moment

Londoners have good reasons to feel proud of their transport system. The capital was the first city in the world to develop an underground railway service and the first to electrify that service. During the years between the World Wars, the newly integrated and fast expanding Underground employed some of the best designers, architects and artists of the day. They set a new standard for 20th century municipal design and communications, with beautiful stations, posters and bold, legible graphics, including the Underground roundel (‘the most brilliant and elemental logo since the Christian cross’ 1) and Harry Beck’s exceptionally user-friendly Underground map.

The development of London’s transportation system shaped the way in which the city grew, helping to integrate areas of jobs and homes through access to high quality and easily accessible public transport. At the same time however, increasing car ownership, coupled with the historic constraints of a road network that evolved over centuries, led to a growing congestion problem.

The last 20 years have marked a new chapter in this history. The establishment in 2000 of Transport for London (TfL) as an agency under the newly established Mayor of London created a powerful and integrated transport system, bringing together most of the city’s railways and strategic roads and all of its bus services – to the envy of English and many international cities. London’s first Mayor used his new powers to introduce the Congestion Charge (CC) – at the time one of the most ambitious urban road pricing systems in the world. This was coupled with the expansion and improvement of public transport, including a major transformation of the Underground and urban rail network, as well as significant investment in the bus network. The world-beating ticketless, digital payment system (Oyster and later contactless account-based ticketing) was then introduced. And most recently TfL took the unusual step of opening most of its service data to the public, stimulating a host of new digital platforms that help enhance the customer journey.

We might call each of these developments a ‘Bazalgette moment’ – after Joseph Bazalgette, the great 19th century engineer who created London’s modern sewer system, helping to eradicate cholera and other diseases in the process, and built some of those first underground train tunnels. Of course, the Bazalgette moments described above differed from one another. But they all represented a creative response on the part of bold and far-sighted city leaders to the transport, health and environmental challenges of the day, using newly available technologies.

The basic argument of this report is that London needs another Bazalgette moment.

The capital’s roads are congested, polluted and dangerous. The Congestion Charge is no longer fit for purpose and the new Ultra Low Emission Zone, while a world-leading and much needed response to London’s air quality crisis, is a blunt tool. The digital revolution is already making it easier for Londoners to navigate the capital, call up new transport services and pay for travel. It now provides an opportunity for the Mayor of London and TfL to create a smarter, fairer and healthier transport system – one with a new approach to road user charging at its heart.

Our fundamental recommendation is for London to move to a more sophisticated and comprehensive distance-based road user charging scheme, closely integrated with the rest of the capital’s transport system.

The aim would be to replace the various charges currently spreading across the city with a single scheme that reflects all impacts of a journey. TfL’s ambition should be to create a multi-modal platform worthy of Harry Beck’s Underground map design: up-to-the-minute, beautiful and easy to use.

The scheme, which would apply to all motor vehicles every day and at all times, could be extended gradually, with charges first applied only to the most congested and polluted areas of the city. In return for any charge incurred, drivers would benefit from improved traffic flow and journey time reliability, enabling TfL to offer a guaranteed level of service and potentially refunds for excessive journey delay – on the same model as ‘delay repay’ for trains. All funds raised would go back into maintaining and investing in London’s roads and streets, public realm and public transport.

We believe, in short, that the approach we set out would be better for the driver – simpler, smarter, fairer – and better for the city – healthier, greener, and more efficient.

This report sets out the case for such a scheme, highlighting the impacts of congestion, the shortcomings of current responses, the parameters of a potential next generation scheme, and a plan for developing and implementing this in the next mayoral term.

Guiding principles

A number of principles have guided our proposals.

  1. We recognise that urban transport is all about trade-offs. The space available for London’s roads and streets is finite. Yet, they have to accommodate a variety of constantly changing demands. They enable people and goods to move around the city but also provide places to socialise, play, exercise and trade. The pressures on London’s roads, moreover, are growing as the city’s population and economic activity grow. Cars, vans, HGVs, buses, bikes and pedestrians are increasingly jostling for space. If London is going to remain a successful and liveable city, then we need to find the best ways of managing these conflicting demands. We need in particular to do everything we can to promote forms of transport that are less space-hungry, such as walking, cycling, buses and trains, and make sure that private and commercial vehicles are used as efficiently as possible and are as clean as possible.
  2. Our approach has been highly pragmatic. We recognise that any new scheme will have to operate within a number of real-world constraints. To begin with, we need to acknowledge that central government sets much of the policy that governs London’s roads and streets. Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) and Fuel Duty are collected and spent nationally – with relatively little of London drivers’ contribution going back into London’s roads. There are strong arguments for moving to a national system of road user charging and for ensuring more of the charges paid by London’s drivers are directed towards tackling its transport and environmental challenges. But central government seems very unlikely to change direction soon, so any new approaches by the Mayor and TfL will have to work within existing national policy.
  3. We recognise the constraints imposed by public attitudes and the circumstances of London’s residents and businesses. In fact, attitudes among Londoners are changing. More of us are concerned about air pollution and road safety. Fewer of us own cars and those that do are driving less. Developers report that both residents and workers are placing greater value on local quality of place; they want wider pavements and more green leisure spaces. Many of us are using smartphone apps to find our way around the city, make transport choices and pay for them, and we have become used to the principles of congestion and pollution charges and ‘surge pricing’. As we will set out, a more integrated, up-to-date system of road user charging could have real appeal.
  4. We also understand that living in London can be tough. Contrary to the view that London is a rich city favoured by national government, living standards have declined and household budgets are tight. Many London residents depend on their car to get by, especially in parts of outer London which are poorly served by public transport. Many businesses rely on vehicles to move people and goods around the capital. Against that background, we have sought to develop proposals that can tackle London’s most critical problems, without imposing excessive burdens on those that need their cars to get by. As far as possible we have tried to ensure any extra costs imposed on individual users are matched by extra benefits – for example, more predictable and less polluted journeys, a more liveable local environment or improved transport alternatives in the form of better public transport and ‘new mobility services’.
  • 1 Martin, A. (1996). Underground Overground: A Passenger’s History of the Tube.