Traffic in London, a pioneer in congestion fees, still creeps along

LONDON -- A decade after it was started in early 2003, central London's once-controversial congestion charge zone has won acceptance from a key group that was most vocally against it at the outset -- the city's shopkeepers.

But the system has still failed to achieve two of its primary goals: to get congealed traffic to move faster and to drastically reduce auto emissions.

"It has become so much a part of retail life in London that no one even mentions it anymore," a spokesman for the British Retail Consortium industry lobby group said. "Traffic numbers are down, and we are in favor of reduced congestion."

Initially, London's retailers railed against the system, saying it had reduced their business as shoppers stayed away rather than drive into the area and have to pay the daily rate or face hefty fines.

In its most recent assessment, Transport for London (TfL), which runs the system for City Hall, said there had been no discernible impact on the city's economy.

At the same time, it said there had been a 9 percent shift from car use to walking and bicycling since the zone came into force in mid-February 2003, and the number of vehicles entering the zone had dropped by 60,000 a day.

Meanwhile, London's population climbed 13 percent between 2000 and 2011 to 8.2 million people -- the same percentage rise as the number of trips per day taken in the capital.


And it is not only the retailers who have grown accustomed to the congestion-reduction system, by far the largest in the world. London's taxi drivers, who were initially dubious despite being exempt from the daily levy, have also declared themselves reasonably happy.

"The zone is certainly here to stay, and we are broadly in favor of it," said Bob Oddy, deputy secretary general of the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, whose 10,000 members drive the city's trademark black cabs. "It certainly hasn't done us any harm and possibly has done us some good."

Speeds that Shakespeare knew

The zone covers 19 square kilometers (7.3 square miles), stretching from Hyde Park in the west to Tower Bridge in the east and St. Pancras in the north to Vauxhall in the south, taking in all of London's buzzing West End shopping and the theater district. It operates from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. (changed from 6:30 p.m. under pressure from theaters and restaurants) from Monday to Friday, excluding public holidays.

Vehicles entering the zone during those times must pay a daily levy of £10 ($15.27) -- double the original fee -- or a fine of £130 ($198.50) for each infringement. Residents in the zone get a 90 percent discount, and electric or ultra-low-emission cars and vans get a 100 percent discount.

In what has been described as one of the biggest urban surveillance systems in the world -- reminiscent of George Orwell's "Big Brother" -- the zone is monitored by about 800 license-plate-reading cameras installed at 400 points and backed up by mobile units within the area.

But for Edmund King, president of the Automobile Association motorists group, the system has singularly failed to achieve its avowed objectives.

"To put it bluntly, the congestion charge has made very little difference to traffic speeds. They have averaged 8 to 10 miles per hour over the last 100 years from horse and cart to the current day and haven't varied that much at all," he said.

"In fact, recent figures from TfL show that traffic speeds have actually reduced over the 10-year period of the congestion charge," he added. "People say things would have been much worse without the scheme, but actually they wouldn't. If traffic speeds drop below a certain level, motorists simply avoid that area, so you get a kind of equilibrium."

Big money for roads and buses

The system has raised a lot of money over the past decade -- about £1.2 billion -- which has been spent on new buses and road improvements, according to TfL.

But King complains that although the bus fleet has expanded and been extensively modernized, roughly half of the system's income has gone to administrative expenses. Even before the system came into force, 86 percent of commuters in central London already traveled by public transport.

"The congestion charge has failed on quite a few counts," he said.

Not least of those is on significantly improving air quality in the city, where a report in December said 9 percent of deaths there were due to air pollution.

TfL says the reduction in traffic congestion and incentives for cleaner vehicles -- such as the Greener Vehicle Discount and Electric Vehicle Discount that will be replaced in July by the even more stringent Ultra Low Emission Discount -- have generally improved air quality.

But it also concedes that making further improvements will be "challenging."

That view was reinforced by a Supreme Court ruling this month that the United Kingdom as a whole and London in particular had seriously breached its European Union obligations on carbon dioxide, particulates and nitrous oxides in the atmosphere -- all symptoms of dirty vehicle exhausts.

No other imitators in U.K. or U.S.

It found that under current government plans, 15 areas in the United Kingdom were not likely to meet E.U. legal limits on nitrogen dioxide until 2020, with London failing to do so until five years later.

"The U.K.'s attitude to air pollution is a national scandal. Thousands of people die prematurely every year because of poor air quality," said Jenny Bates of environmental group Friends of the Earth, which brought the legal action against the government.

But that is not the only problem facing the system, proclaimed as a trend-setting exercise when it first came into effect.

An extension westward in 2007 under the system's instigator, Labour Mayor Ken Livingstone, to take in the rich city borough of Kensington and Chelsea was abandoned three years later by his Conservative successor, Boris Johnson, after an outcry from residents and businesses and with a keen eye on his electorate.

And other U.K. cities, many of which had been expected to follow the London lead, have failed to pick up the baton. The northern city of Manchester toyed with the idea but then dropped it, while a referendum in the Scottish city of Glasgow simply rejected the idea.

The Swedish capital, Stockholm, did in August 2007 follow Singapore and Norway's Oslo by bringing in a central city congestion charging zone. But less than a year later, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) saw his plans for a congestion charge in the city thrown out.

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