London Mayoral Candidate: Use Congestion Charge to Lower Bus Fares

With Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith hinting cryptically at future plans for congestion pricing in New York, and with public discussion of congestion pricing percolating in San Francisco, it may be timely to check back in with London’s congestion pricing system.

london_bus.jpgCongestion charging has already greatly improved bus service. Will Londoners vote to use congestion fees to reduce fares, too? Photo: Wikimedia

Introduced in central London in 2003 and then extended westward in 2007, the congestion charge has curbed traffic, reduced the number of car crashes, cut emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants, raised nearly a billion dollars to invest in public transport, and encouraged people to travel in more sustainable ways, with increased bus ridership and cycling rates.

So the congestion charge is a fixture in the British capital. The debates today center over what shape the congestion zone should take, and what to do with the revenue. While the current mayor, Boris Johnson, is intent on shrinking the zone, one of his potential successors has raised the prospect of maintaining the current cordon and using congestion fees to reduce bus fares. 

Johnson has backed the removal of the western extension, which mainly covers the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and is approximately half of the current zone, since he was a candidate. Why would the mayor want to remove such an apparently successful measure?

Whereas the original congestion charging zone, which encompassed the economic and cultural heart of the city, has enjoyed wide public and political support, the more residential western extension has always been more controversial. In particular, there have been concerns about the impact on small businesses and residents living just outside the zone who are not eligible for the 90 percent discount for residents. Johnson used the idea of eliminating the western extension during the 2008 mayoral campaign as a way of differentiating himself from the policies and management style of the incumbent, Ken Livingstone.

In online surveys, highly motivated residents have clamored for the western extension to be removed. Surveys of Londoners as a whole, however, show a more balanced view. It is expected that removing the western extension will result in small increases in congestion, CO2 and air pollutant emissions.

Johnson’s final decision is expected in the fall, with removal penciled in for December 24 this year. A series of mitigation measures have been proposed if removal goes ahead.

Even if the western extension is removed, that may not be the end of the story. Both of the Labour Party’s candidates for mayor, Livingstone and Oona King, a former member of Parliament, are expected to re-introduce the western extension if elected in 2012.

At the launch of King’s transport platform earlier this week, she even suggested that the revenues from the re-instated western extension (approximately $75 million a year) could be used to reduce bus fares. “Half of all Londoners’ journeys on public transport are by bus and it’s time we used money raised from elsewhere to start reducing fares for everyone," King told the London Evening Standard, "especially the least wealthy who rely on this essential service to get around the capital.”

In London, travel survey data shows that buses are more likely to be used by people with lower incomes. Those who drive, meanwhile, tend to have higher incomes and are better able to absorb additional costs.

With New York’s MTA still facing a $400 million deficit, which could result
in more fare hikes and further service reductions, the need to properly
fund the city’s transit system is as strong as ever. The official proposals for road pricing here — congestion pricing and the Ravitch Commission’s bridge toll plan — haven’t been linked explicitly to holding down transit fares (although the backers of the Kheel Plan did make that connection). New York and other cities considering congestion pricing will want to keep tabs on the political fate of such a proposal in London.

  • ChrisCo

    In London, like in NY, there is no reason for 90%+ of the population to drive. Only London has realized that in implementing anti-car policies, and NY has not.

  • Mad Park

    “Why would the mayor want to remove such an apparently successful measure?”
    Perhaps because Boris is nuts?

  • This article contains lots of factual errors. The London Congestion Tax has not reduced traffic congestion, has not cut air pollutants (look at the actual facts not the false estimates) and I have never even seen a claim before that it has cut accidents – it has not. Neither is the Congestion Charge a “fixture” as the writer puts it – in reality the Mayor of London is about to scrap the Western Extension which is a major part of the area covered by the scheme. This is being removed because it has been enormously unpopular and was in the election platform for Mayor Boris Johnson. That is one reason why he was elected and Ken Livingstone, the former Mayor who promoted anti-car policies was thrown out.

    The London Congestion Tax (soon to rise to US$16 for every trip into the center of London), is an enormous waste of money, with almost all the money being raised being spent on administration of the scheme.

    Anyone who looks at the scheme in detail will realise it has been a very costly failure, which is why no other UK city has followed the lead of London. It would be scrapped tomorrow if it was possible to get out of the long term contract that was entered into by Livingstone without paying enormoys penalties.

    See this web page for articles on the London Congestion Charge that give you the facts, not false rhetoric on the wonders of road pricing:

  • ChrisCo

    Mr. Lawson, please get out of here with your pro-car propaganda.

  • Martin

    Lets try and strike a balance here. The problem with the congestion charge is that it is very expensive to run. When it was first launched we were promised that fees would not have to rise for 10 years. But oops traffic fell more than predicted and suddenly they doubled the fee.

    While it now makes a profit it’s margins are pretty low. Since it’s launch, despite the higher fees, traffic has begun to rise again.

    The Western extension has proved controversial, as mentioned. Others wondered why the Richest part of town was chosen compared to the North and East of the city centre where traffic was worse and pollution higher.

    Now that moneys tight, the current Mayor has been dragging his feet about cancelling it. I suspect he will still because it was a campaign promise and so far he has actually followed on all his promises.

    I have also heard that TFL are searching round to try and find a cheaper replacement to the current operator as they were expecting so much more money than has actually been raised.

    An easier why for Manhattan to reduce car use. Finish tolling those bridges,politically difficult I know, rip put those traffic lanes and put down segregated bus lanes on all Avenues and on Major streets. Massively expand metered parking and make the rates similar to private garages.

    Decriminalise parking and remove it from the police, hive it off to private contractors until like in London you get frightened to stop your car in case they slap a ticket on it.

    Though most of London is covered in controlled parking zones, it has proved politically toxic where local councils desperate for money have set high ticket issuing targets too high, resulting storys in local press of ambulances/hearses getting tickets, people knocked off their mopeds getting tickets while being loaded into ambulances. Or asking for directions or getting their shopping out etc. I think in Islington council where they were tone deaf to anger about the level of enforcement that nearly every single councilor was thrown out.

    The level of parking enforcement in the UK and the very high petrol prices is why many people feel that their is a war against the motorist in the UK. We don’t feel that all the massive taxes and arbitrary fines you pay are really about keeping traffic moving or green issues. Poll after Poll shows that if we believed that a congestion charging scheme would lower other motorist fees, and/or improved public transport then such schemes could be supported. The problem that has been that no one trusts the politicians that would actually happen.

  • Nathanael

    Roger Lawson, you’re wrong, but for reasons you probably don’t understand.

    First of all, like practically everyone (!) you have failed to grasp the purpose of the Congestion Charge, and the reason why the main part of it is not going away.

    The purpose was to reduce the number of cars in downtown London enough that the buses can run on time.

    It works.

    Everything else is extra.

    In areas of London with wider roads, buses simply get bus lanes. But in the oldest parts of downtown London, this was impossible due to narrow roads. Hence the Congestion Charge.

    The Western Extension was a lot more questionable, as congestion in that area was not as clearly a cause of major bus delays the way the eastern section was.

    No mayor wants to be the one responsible for making the buses late. Therefore the main Congestion Charge zone will remain.

  • Nathanael

    As an important point, this is why a Congestion Charge makes much, much less sense for Manhattan. The roads are plenty wide enough for bus lanes, and they should simply have bus lanes

  • Dear Jacob

    The proposal to remove the western extension of the congestion charging zone in London (WEZ) is the ‘daftest’ of Mayor Johnson’s ‘daft’ transport policies.

    For further details, including a list of the adverse impacts if the WEZ is removed (with full referencing of facts), please see:

    You can follow the story as it develops on

    With best wishes.

    Simon Birkett
    Campaign for Clean Air in London

  • Dave

    Congestion pricing as originally envisioned is overly complex and not needed in Manhattan which, as an island, has natural boundaries that make it easy to accomplish its primary goals without costly and complex regulations.

    – Toll all the bridges and tunnels. Now. With EZ-Pass. Easy.
    – Reinstall two-way tolling at every crossing to reduce toll-shopping (and reduce traffic in lower Manhattan and keep trucks on the highways where they belong)
    – Use EZ-Pass technology at every crossing to regulate pricing according to time and day (but never make it less expensive to drive into Manhattan than to take transit as it is now)

    You’ll achieve much of the same goals as congestion pricing but without silly exemptions for staying on the WSD or FDR and the ridiculous readers across 86th St. All of Manhattan (with the best transit in the city) becomes the congestion zone. Deal with it.

    Other easy fixes:
    – Permit parking (why don’t we have it?)
    – Placard reform (ditto)
    – Eliminate free parking at projects and sell the parking lots
    – Reintroduce seven-day meters (the religious excuse is blatantly ridiculous)

    The city subsidizes car-ownership to an unbelievable degree and JSK and Bloomberg are wimps to tackle the real issues. Less ugly and useless plazas taken from streets and more tackling the major issues!

  • Dave, what you’re proposing is identical to congestion pricing, but with a better congestion charge zone. It’s what the Assembly wanted as part of the MTA bailout deal, but without the Bloomberg-charged name.

  • The difference between congestion pricing and tolling is that congestion pricing affects drivers who live in Manhattan as well as bridge-and-tunnel commuters. CP is therefore a fairer and more comprehensive solution, though tolling would still have an enormously beneficial effect.

  • Damian Hockney

    Roger Lawson is quite correct to point out that errors appear to creep into international coverage of the Congestion Charge in London – It is difficult to know whether it is political campaigning or just wishful thinking, but seen from London the comments strike a sour note.

    Closer to home, however, the failure to introduce such a charge into two other major British cities can be laid squarely at the many failures of the Congestion Charge in London. In both cases, the people of Manchester and Edinburgh were bombarded with state propaganda to encourage them to vote for the tax, but a quick examination of the downside made people vote against (when given the chance to actually vote). The appalling tricks introduced in London to ensure that fines were high included artificial time cut-offs for paying (10pm on the same day) and a telephone payment service which simply and interestingly answered just after 10pm landing you with an instant and very large fine. And of course, at a time when prices in shops have stagnated or even dropped, the Charge will soon have doubled in price, in just seven years. All to pay contractors and satisfy contractual commitments to large corporations. Those who comment should really check their facts and sources and put both sides of this argument.

  • The london CC zone is pretty controversial. In the original zone, most people in the city could ignore it; only those people daft enough to try and drive through the centre on a weekday got penalised. The nice bit: everyone who had work-supplied parking also got to pay it was fair. (Side note: check up on the US Embassy non-payment issues. Is it a tax or are you buying quieter roads).

    The W.extension was always controversial. It went a long way west, to where the BBC was based (leads to media coverage that cannot fail to be against it), and it passes through those parts of the city where the Cameronites live. People who have expensive cars and are proud of it. And while in the East zone residents got a reduced rate, as part of the expansion, owners of the most CO2 producing vehicles (Group G Vehicle Excise Duty, V6 engines and the like), don’t. This makes them expansive to own and use, and kills their resale value too.

    While Ken L may be viewed as anti car, central london depends on public transport to function. the tube, the buses. The CC zone helped fund this, though it’s still expensive, still got funding issues.

  • Damian Hockney

    Bristol Traffic, it is not just the US Embassy that does not pay it. The EU issued a statement following a meeting with tax lawyers four years ago that as the C Charge is a tax, it does not have to be paid by diplomats. As a result, France, Germany et al do not pay either. Embassies with large staffs and organised establishments do not pay, while small embassies and high commissions with one (often personally used) car do.

  • MRN

    I’m all for both raising (a) congestion charge AND lowering bus fares; I think both are good public policy. And this may play in England, but I would be fearful of such an approach in the USA: A vote that directly transfers money from drivers to transit-users is likely to be very confrontation in nature and further entrench the Tea Party and tea-party-likes in NYS. They’ll have an ironclad example of “socialist” policy and so on…

  • MRN

    to: Lawson,
    The Western Extension was a basically a voting-grab maneuver, and was not part of the initial congestion cordon. The decision to continue/end the Western Extension congestion charge was a purely political one, not technical.

  • J:Lai

    Agreed with Dave and Alon Levy above that a simple and effective form of congestion pricing can be implemented for Manhattan by tolling ALL crossings to and from the island, in combination with some parking reform.

    The infrastructure is pretty much in place already, no new technology is required, and administrative costs should be very predictable based on this.

    Creating different zones within Manhattan complicates things immensely, for at-best marginal gains in fairness, efficacy, or revenue.

    As far as the issue Mark Walker raises, it is true that those who own cars within Manhattan and use them primarily within the borough would not be tolled. I think that is ok, and a small concession relative to the added complexity required to charge people for this type of use.

  • JK

    The only real problem with London’s “congestion charge” is it’s name. It’s worked well to increase bus and bike use and decrease car use. Congestion hasn’t declined hugely because large amounts of road space have been reprogrammed for bus and bike use, and public space. Central London is easier to get around for more people. That’s a successful transportation policy. Maybe the Lesson from London for NYC is that many motorists will never be convinced that they should pay for anything: public space, road and bridge maintenance or environmental damage — but don’t we already know that?

  • J. Mork

    JK —

    If bus service has increased in volume and speed and there is less space for cars (thus fewer people sitting in traffic), then there are definitely fewer people delayed by congestion. Maybe that’s what London means.

  • J:Lai, I’d add that the primary purpose of a congestion charge should not be to punish people living in Manhattan just for the sake of it. As John Adams notes, good transportation policy should aim to restrict cars in the suburbs and the exurbs, not in the inner city, where they’re already slow and not very useful. A congestion charge, which is essentially a suburb-to-city commuter tax, would be a small start; more important would be congestion-charging around suburban edge cities.

  • J:Lai

    “the primary purpose of a congestion charge should not be to punish people living in Manhattan just for the sake of it . . . good transportation policy should aim to restrict cars in the suburbs and the exurbs”

    Hmm. I think the primary purpose should be to transfer the costs of an externality to those who actually benefit from car usage. If people want to drive from one suburb to another without passing through the central city, congestion pricing should not charge them anything. Perhaps an increased gas tax or carbon tax would be a way to deal with that, but not congestion pricing.

    But I guess now we are splitting hairs.

  • The edge cities often have just as much congestion as the central cities. In Singapore, where the CBD has been congestion-priced for decades, the office parts have more congestion than the CBD, because driving there is free and the mass transit options aren’t the greatest.

    It doesn’t mean congestion pricing is bad. It’s probably the best urban design idea Bloomberg came up with, but like all other ideas, it doesn’t extend well to congested roads outside New York City.

  • JK

    As a side note, when the great Bob Kiley was head of the NYC Partnership (post heading the MTA and before heading Transport for London)he proposed pricing all of the NYC area highways. His idea was to use the toll money to pay for the billions in rebuilding and repair needed on the BQE, Belt, GCP etc and for rebuilding transit. The idea got nowhere, but still makes a lot of sense. A major problem for NYC is that local motorists firmly believe that others should pay for the bridges and roads they use. One result is that the area highway network is falling apart.

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