London’s Experience With Congestion Pricing: It’s Working!

With the congestion charge, more people are traveling to central London by bus, and fewer by car. Photo: Dun.can/Twitter
With the congestion charge, more people are traveling to central London by bus, and fewer by car. Photo: Dun.can/Twitter

Last month, NY1 politics reporter Bobby Cuza was sent to London to see whether New York could learn any lessons from that city’s 16-year experience with congestion pricing. Cuza filed a week’s worth of gripping reports that proved almost beyond dispute that London’s program is working. But he flew back to the Big Apple unsure if London’s success means New York will also get congestion pricing right. He filed this report for Streetsblog.

The passage of congestion pricing in Albany was one of the heaviest political lifts in recent memory. It took more than a decade of advocacy and a unique alignment of the political stars: First, the MTA’s descent into chaos created a more welcoming environment for a bold funding solution. Then, Democrats took control of the State Senate last fall, eliminating what had been a major roadblock.

Now comes the hard part: getting it to work.

London implemented congestion pricing in 2003, so its experience provides some useful guideposts. But it also lays bare some of the challenges facing New York. Here’s what I found:

‘Buses, buses, buses’

The author, on the big story. Photo: NY1
The author, on the big story. Photo: NY1

Then-Mayor Ken Livingstone’s key advice to Mayor Bloomberg in 2007 was to add buses if he wanted to succeed. In tandem with the launch of its congestion charge, London ramped up bus service into the congestion zone by 27 percent. Ridership skyrocketed by 37 percent virtually overnight — about half of which was drivers who’d gotten out of their cars, according to estimates by Transport for London.

Today, it’s striking how saturated central London is with double-decker buses zipping along dedicated bus lanes, unimpeded by parked cars.

Could the same approach work in New York? Buses are not woven into the fabric of our transit system the way they are in London, where bus ridership is three times higher. And radically remaking our bus system would require visionary leadership.

But from whom?

One man’s vision

London has one major advantage over New York: Its mayor controls nearly all facets of transportation, from the Tube and bus network to the major roads.

It was all spelled out in the Greater London Act of 1999, which established the mayoralty itself. That enabling legislation also expressly authorized a congestion charge — which meant Livingstone could enact it unilaterally, without so much as a public hearing.

Centralized command meant Livingstone could design the program and make adjustments as he saw fit. It’s a far cry from New York, where elected officials seem eager to distance themselves from congestion pricing, punting on major details of the plan until after the 2020 elections.

Limit exemptions

Everyone involved with London’s congestion charge was emphatic on one point: Take a hard line on exemptions, or you quickly erode the plan’s effectiveness.

New York, of course, has already seen this contentious debate take shape. Truckers, taxis, off-duty police officers and the disabled are just some of the groups already seeking a break.

It remains to be seen how susceptible the yet-to-be established Traffic Mobility Review Board will be to these lobbying efforts. But Albany did come down hard on yellow taxis and other FHVs, including Uber, by passing a surcharge last year on rides in the busiest parts of Manhattan.

Road pricing in Stockholm and London, above, has yielded a street safety dividend -- even in times and places when the charge is not in effect. Photo: Andrew Lassiter
Congestion pricing in London, above, has yielded a street safety dividend — even in times and places when the charge is not in effect. Photo: Andrew Lassiter


New York would seem to have an edge in its ability to deploy the right equipment. London’s system is still running on 2003 technology. Here, the TBTA is already surveying possibilities ranging from roadside bluetooth readers to a system that relies solely on your smartphone to determine when you cross into the congestion zone.

For now, New York’s plan is to toll passenger vehicles only once a day. But the system could eventually allow for a per-mile charge, where you pay based on how much you drive while in the zone. That kind of pricing is already very much a part of the policy debate in London, even if the British system isn’t yet outfitted with the necessary technology.

Revenue targets

London’s charge was singularly focused on battling congestion. New York has made no such pretense. This venture is, first and foremost, a revenue raiser for the beleaguered MTA.

That might actually make things simpler from a PR perspective. There is, after all, a hard target: The MTA must raise enough money to back $15 billion worth of bonds for the MTA capital program.

So there’s a ready answer when the public complains about high fees: It’s our statutory obligation.

Just do it

In London, public acceptance soared once the charge took effect and residents saw there were few ill effects. Livingstone was re-elected the following year. There has been no existential threat to the charge ever since.

It may be a lesson for jittery New York politicians who are afraid to associate themselves too closely with congestion pricing.

I interviewed Livingstone in his lovely backyard garden last month. When we asked his advice for New York, he was brief:

“Just do it as quick as possible.”

Bobby Cuza is a political reporter at NY1. His series on London’s congestion-pricing charge can be found here.

  • Sassojr

    “New York, of course, has already seen this contentious debate take shape. Truckers, taxis, off-duty police officers and the disabled are just some of the groups already seeking a break.”

    You plainly ignored motorized two wheeled vehicles; both the fact that they ARE exempt in London, and the fact that we’re the only group whose exemption would REDUCE congestion by precipitating a mode shift away from giant single-occupant SUVs to human scale two-wheeled vehicles. This is why in a plan with few exemptions, London STILL exempted motorcycles and scooters.

  • pfrishauf

    That’s also one sweet new model London bus! Low to the ground, and a windshield that makes it possible for drivers to actually see a small person on fronts bus. And speaking of views, the double decker is sweet. Why can’t we have these in NYC?

  • Larry Littlefield

    It should be noted that the “City of London” that controls transportation there is not equivalent to the City of New York, which controls everything except transit within its borders. It is the Greater London Authority.

    It is a metropolitan area government with limited functions for all of Greater London. In fact it is like the MTA, but with an elected executive and Council.

    Most of its money comes from the national government, which pretty much funds almost everything in the UK.

  • FizzyMyNizzy

    ABC did a story May 1st 2019 it business get hurt. Our transit system is worst and will get even more worst when congestion price comes. Other area will get congestion.

  • Scott Wilson

    The “City of London” has little to do with it, but Transport for London (TfL) has authority over arterial roads and public transport across greater London. It is not that much like the MTA, as its board is not elected and only the Mayor has authority over it. TfL franchises all bus operations to a series of private bus operators. It has little power over local authority roads and none over the small proportion of motorway mileage in London, but it does allocate funding to boroughs for their local road maintenance and upgrades.

    The Mayor of London controls the budget. It is not true that most money comes from the national government at all. All operational funding comes from fares, GLA proportion of Council Tax (which is a tax on property) and a small contribution from the congestion charge and ULEZ/LEZ charges. London Underground makes a financial surplus on fares, the buses do not. The only contribution from the national government is capital contributions for major projects (such as Crossrail).

  • FizzyMyNizzy

    Here is another one. Transportation analyst says congestion pricing devastates the poor

    Would be nice if streetsblog stop with the bias towards any drivers and pedestrians.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The poor are on the bus. Isn’t the Northwest the rich part of Greater London?

  • jo jo

    Ban all cars in Manhattan. And load the streets with Buses and cycles and scooters and skate boards. Have all buses run 24 hours and just get rid of the subway trains. No one enjoys going underground anymore especially people work the nights and overnights. Everybody is not in the 9 to 5 Monday to Friday rat race.

  • Sanjeev Ramchandra

    The “Northwest” from that mynorthwest link is not about London but the northwest USA (Washington state).

  • Joe R.

    Truly poor people, meaning those at or under the federal poverty line, can’t afford to own cars.

  • AMH
  • sf in sf

    Great report. Good lessons for San Francisco, too, which I hope will quickly follow New York in implementing decongestion pricing.

  • Let’s first get NY or London rail systems in SF/Bay Area to encourage more people to ditch their cars. Commuters shouldn’t be taxed because transit options suck.

  • The planet you apparently are on seems to be lacking oxygen.

  • Joe R.

    Even better have these to make the most use of street space:

  • City Resident

    Commuters should, however, be taxed because they pollute and because they contribute to congestion, which directly worsens surface public transit service and pedestrian and bicyclist safety.

  • sf in sf

    Happy to help promote Bay Area rail investment. If there’s a fundraising effort or campaign you have in mind, let me know, I’m in. But we should make improvements now, not wait to “first” achieve some goal that would take decades and tens of billions of dollars.

    Bus upgrades a la Muni Forward and International Blvd BRT can be done quickly and cheaply. Couple those near-term investments with decongestion pricing, and we’ve got better commutes now, to hold us over while new rail services are planned and built.

  • Sanjeev Ramchandra

    But the middle class can afford cars and will be economically devastated when faced with an expensive congestion pricing scheme.

  • Ethan

    Then there’s poor people who aren’t super poor, but can’t afford to live close to work or convenient public transit so their commutes take way too long.

  • “But we should make improvements now, not wait to “first” achieve some goal that would take decades and tens of billions of dollars.” Muni Forward? TEP? LMAO.

  • Oh okay. The same commuters who are priced out of affordable housing options closer to their jobs OR the same commuters who have no reasonable alternative than to drive (translation: crap transit like I mentioned above).

    I love to read how quickly people want to tax the “bad commuter who drives” while ignoring the lack of robust transit (read: robust) that would take many of these commuters off the road. Then again, nothing surprises me in this Transit First City.

  • First of all, these goofballs aren’t “forced”. Most of them choose to live, for example, in nowheresville eastern Queens because they want conditions that are fundamentally non-urban and even anti-urban: a yard, a garage. We would be better off if such people left our City altogether, so that we could rezone for density appropriate for an urban area.

    Secondly, the only thing hindering the robustness of outer-borough transit is the poor use of street space. In between the hours of 6am and 8pm, streets such as Jamaica Avenue, Myrtle Avenue, Hillside Avenue, and Union Turnpike should be for buses only. You’d see bus travel times cut by as much as two thirds.

    And express buses should have a lane to themselves in the Midtown Tunnel and on the Queensboro Bridge. There’s little point in an “express” bus that can only get caught in traffic caused by SUV-driving sociopaths.

    And, when these policies inevitably bring more people to the buses, then we could create still more dedicated busways and still more bus lanes on river crossings. These are improvements that build on themselves.

  • Sassojr

    Sure, everyone who lives out here in the Bronx transit deserts does so because we love our non-existent back yards. Totally has nothing to do with being priced-out of the core.

  • The Bronx has subway lines that go right to the City line. If Queens had the equivalent, the 7, E, F, and J trains would run out to the Cross Island Parkway.

    The E and F were intended to do just that, until eastern Queens was infested with suburban-style development, and therefore with the kind of people who did not want the subway to bring urban blacks to their faux-suburban areas.

    Also, while the Bronx is gaining new Metro North stops, Queens has lost LIRR stops.

    The point is that there is no such thing as a “Bronx transit desert”.

    Indeed, there is no such thing as a “transit desert” anywhere in New York City. But especially not in a subway-rich borough such as the Bronx. Subway deserts exist in eastern Queens and in southern Brooklyn, but not in the Bronx.

  • Sassojr

    Pretty sure most people (especially on this site) would say that a transit desert in NYC is anything without a subway. Co-op City, Riverdale, Soundview, and Throgs Neck (amongst other neighborhoods) are all well over 20 minute walks to the nearest subway. The Bronx bus redesign did almost nothing to address issues to buses serving these areas.

    On another note, I’m amused that the redesign release wasn’t covered AT ALL. Love that the only time Streetsblog cares about brown people is when bike lanes are involved (Dyckman and Morris Park).

  • Anyone who ignores the existence of buses when talking about transit is talking nonsense.

  • Sassojr

    I literally dedicated more words to the redesign product than Streetsblog has.

    The problem with buses in these areas is that the headways are far too long to be useful. So yeah, I didn’t ignore the existence of buses, those areas are still deserts.

  • Biking is better

    That story was terrible. There was no research supporting her assertions that congestion pricing hurt the poor. If I declare that congestion pricing reduced asthma, maybe that makes it true. Funny that charging people to use the road was perceived to be socialist. Isn’t paying for goods and services you use definitively market-based?

  • Critiquing the bus service is reasonable. (And so is critiquing Streetsblog’s lack of coverage of Bronx buses.) But when you say that the headways are too long for those buses to be useful, you are overlooking the apps.

    As Merricat has recently pointed out, the MTA has an app that tells you the position of every bus. And there are many third-party apps that perform a similar function; the one I use is Moovit.

    Thanks to these apps, headways no longer matter. Of course we would always prefer more frequent service. But, these apps allow you to treat the bus like a commuter train, and to get to the stop at the time that you know the bus will be there.

  • Sassojr

    “Headways no longer matter”

    Someone is thinking in one direction only.

    Sure, going to work you can time your bus. Try telling that to the person whose train drops them off at their above ground station, when it’s 15 degrees outside, and the next bus is in 19 minutes because it’s no longer rush hour (where 10 minutes is still too long).

  • I see. Well, that is a good point.

    When I was in high school, I used to take the Q76 each way. While most kids ran out as soon as the final bell rang, I found it preferable to go to the school library and do all my homework, so that I could keep my evenings free for important things, such as watching sitcoms and listening to rock radio. So I would typically leave school some time around 6pm, or later.

    I remember standing in the cold for what seemed like interminable periods waiting for that awful bus. This was long before the installation of signs at every bus stop showing the route’s schedule. But the bus has to be coming, right? Or maybe this is all some elaborate ruse, designed to induce madness.

    Indeed, at some point while standing alone in the dark and cold, one could not help but to question one’s own sanity. Even now, 40 years later, I cannot see a Q76 without feeling a flash of anger: “Oh, now you turn up! Where the f were you when I needed you?!” (Damn, I really hated high school.)

    So I take the point that headways are not irrelevant when you are not the one who is deciding when to get to your stop.

    Still, to be fair, it is not often 15 degrees. And today we have at our disposal this magical device which allows us to use the waiting time in a pleasant way by listening to podcasts, audio books, music, etc.

    (I wish I had had at least a Walkman back in my high school days. They had just come out; but they were pretty expensive. I didn’t get one until I was almost through with high school. I could at least have passed the time at that lonely bus stop listening to Scott Muni.)

    Anyway, if you think that Streetsblog has not sufficiently covered the issues involving Bronx buses, then you should write up a piece and submit it to them.

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  • City Resident

    Mark, from your comments I recall you are a proponent of improved public transit (specifically subway construction) yet you seem to readily decry proposals to fund transit improvements or to improve our existing transit system, in the near term, in a realistic fashion. How do you propose to fund the improvements you seek?

    The status quo today has transit riders taxed by motorists who congest our streets. These motorists, nearly all of whom have good alternatives to driving (at least in downtown SF), seem to have no incentive (ethically or financially) to not pollute and congest and public transit suffers as a result. In case you’re unfamiliar with it, the following streetsfilm touches on some relevant aspects of harm caused by the status quo, which directly limit our ability to improve public transit and which you seem to support:

  • City Resident

    Devastated means destroyed or ruined. Climate change can cause devastation. A tax on congestion can not.

  • Sanjeev Ramchandra

    Financial ruin is economic devastation for households.

  • Sanjeev Ramchandra

    A sales tax is a better approach to funding transit as it is affordable to everyone and generates more tax revenue unlike an expensive congestion pricing tax which hurts the middle class and the poor.

  • City Resident

    Sales taxes are widely considered to be regressive and sales taxes are difficult or impossible to avoid. On the other hand, congestion pricing (which can be avoided if one drives at off-peak times or if one travels by other modes) funds improved alternatives to driving which benefits all – but perhaps moreso those with lower incomes who are less able to afford automobile ownership. Improved public transportation (which includes faster and more reliable public transportation thanks to less congested streets) helps level the playing field so that all members of society have improved access to employment and other activities, regardless of their ability to afford or operate an automobile.

  • City Resident

    It is hyperbolic to claim that a fee that has been reasonably set and that can also be rather easily avoided by many can cause financial ruin or economic devastation.

  • Sanjeev Ramchandra

    Congestion pricing is more regressive than a sales tax as its unaffordability affects the middle class and poor more. The entire point of a sales tax is to avoid having exemptions unlike carveouts for congestion pricing. Everyone should pay just a little towards an improved mass transit system which is what a sales tax captures.

  • Sanjeev Ramchandra

    The fee can’t be avoided as there is not sufficient transit capacity and reliability to absorb an influx of commuters who switch from driving. Travelers from transit deserts are unable to avoid the fee.

  • City Resident

    If one lives in a “transit desert,” why can’t one drive or bicycle to a bus stop or train station and park, so as to continue the trip on public transit? As in the case of London and other cities that have implemented congestion pricing, revenue generated is reinvested in improved public transit, expanding its reliability and capacity.

  • City Resident

    Everyone buys products and everyone therefore must pay sales tax, regardless of one’s ability to afford this. There is no way to avoid doing so. On the other hand, a congestion fee can be avoided if one travels at times when it’s not imposed or travels by other means. In some cases, those who carpool may be exempt. If your concern is truly about a presumed regressive nature of such a tax, why not advocate for a means-tested exemption to a congestion fee? Surely this would be much easier to implement than a means-tested exemption to sales taxes (since automobiles are registered to specific people at specific addresses).

  • Jack

    It’s not working. Congestion is worse and trip times are longer.

    These findings come from London, Stockholm, and Singapore where congestion pricing has been thoroughly studied. Search “congestion pricing fandom” for the research by Transport for London, Swedish Transport Administration, and an academic study on congestion in Singapore.


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