London Assembly report advocates change in road pricing tech

Assembly members say congestion charge has been beaten by rising numbers of delivery vans and hire cars

London’s congestion charge - initially one of the most successful IT based public policy initiatives for a generation - has now been beaten by a rising tide of delivery vans and private hire cars, according to a report by the London Assembly Transport Committee.

London taxis in trafiic jamIt has proposed that the charge should be replaced by a road pricing system, charging by distance travelled and time of day. 

This is one of a package of measures in the report, London Stalling, published by the committee in the run-up to a new transport strategy for the capital.

Any move towards sophisticated road pricing would be controversial. Plans for a national scheme were ditched by the last Labour government eight years ago in the face of fierce opposition from the motoring and civil liberties lobbies.

Excess wait time

By contrast, central London’s fixed charge, currently £11.50 a day supported by automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) technology, has been seen as a success since its introduction in 2003. The number of cars entering central London fell by 39% between 2002 and 2014. Meanwhile the scheme’s operator, Transport for London, raised £168 million from the charge in 2015-16, representing 5% of its income.

However, after a decade of success, congestion seems to be rising again. A standard measure of congestion, average vehicle speed on major roads, fell 11% from 2012 to 2015. Another, “Excess wait time for buses” has risen 20% since 2012-13.

The report says the increase is not caused by use of private cars, which has been falling for at least 10 years. On the other hand, the number of light delivery vans and private hire vehicles is increasing: the number of licensed vehicles by 70% in less than four years.

Delivery vans pay the congestion charge, whereas private hire vehicles, when licensed with London Taxi and Private Hire, do not. The committee recommends that this exemption be removed. It also calls for reform to the charging model, suggesting a driver who has paid for the day may have an incentive to drive more in order to get their money’s worth.

Stockholm model

“The recent increase in congestion should lead to a reassessment of whether the policy is achieving key objectives, and how it may be modified or replaced,” the committee says. In the short term, the system should be replaced by one that charges vehicles more for entering the zone at peak times and for spending longer in the zone. Stockholm already has such a charging model.

In the longer term, the charge should be integrated with others that drivers pay. The committee proposes that this should include vehicle excise duty (road tax) - which it wants devolved to Transport for London “so it can be replaced with a system fairer to motorists”.

The committee does not explain how such a tax regime would work for vehicles registered in London but used outside the capital.

Real time displays

However, other solutions proposed by the committee appear more realistic. Among its recommendations are to consider expanding the use of displays on the outside of buses to show real time information about congestion.

Buses on two routes already have such electronic boards, supplied by Equitech IT Solutions, which give accurate and up-to-date traffic information taken from the TfL Variable Message Sign network.

It also recommends trying to reduce the number of delivery vans by reviving the idea of 'click and collect' depots at Underground and rail stations. Pilot schemes involving Tesco and Sainsbury’s were abandoned in 2015 because of a lack of interest from customers. The committee has asked TfL for to pilot a scheme in which multiple retailers and/or freight operators can deliver packages to a station for collection.

In the foreword to London Stalling, Caroline Pidgeon, chair of the assembly's transport committee, says: “We recommend in this report that the mayor should make plans now to introduce road pricing in London. This idea has long been discussed, but until now the political will to make it happen has been lacking. Delaying further is not an option.”

Image by Dan Ox, CC BY 2.0 through flickr