London’s green streets

One year ago this week, London began to charge private automobiles and commercial vehicles £5 ($12.50) a day if they either entered or left its downtown core between 7 a.m. and 6:30 pm. The reviews of this unprecedented experiment – designed to reduce traffic jams in one of the most heavily congested cities in the world – are now in, and they’re rave. The pundits who almost all predicted disaster are red-faced. London has cracked gridlock and unlocked economic efficiencies.

The £5 charge has deterred some 65,000 vehicles – 27% of vehicles subject to the fee – from the downtown area. As a result, traffic delays are down by an astonishing 30%, to 1.7 minute of delay per kilometre travelled. Before the toll came in, public opinion polls showed that more than 20% of Londoners considered traffic to be “at a critical level” and another 30% considered it “very bad.” After the £5 charge came in, the numbers dropped to a mere 5% who considered the traffic problem critical, and 10% who considered it very bad.

All told, car trips are down 30% and truck trips are down 10%. While these private vehicles have yielded a large share of the road, others – those that tend to cause less congestion and pollution, and thus less economic harm – have gained, with the most efficient transportation forms gaining the most. Motorcycle and scooter trips are up 12%. Bicycle trips are up by 20%. Taxi trips are up by 20%. Public transit trips are up by 23%.

Public transit’s gain comes only in part because the £5 charge for driving makes the bus more economical relative to the car. With buses no longer stuck in traffic, they can travel faster and better keep to their schedules. Disruptions due to traffic were down by 60% in the central area and 40% across London as a whole, reducing the excess waiting time at bus stops by 33% in the central area, and by 20% across the whole system. Taxi use is way up for similar reasons. For similar reasons, too, accidents are way down: 28% fewer cars were involved in accidents and 6% fewer pedestrians. These efficiencies translate into a £220-million a year benefit to Londoners in reduced travel time, fuel costs and accidents.

The benefits extend further, however. With the city’s downtown core functioning so efficiently, Londoners feel better about the amenities on offer. When asked about the overall “pleasantness of location” of the core’s business areas, theatre district, streets with high concentrations of restaurants, tourist attractions and the fringes of the central core, all scored higher than they had before the £5 charge was introduced. The public reported less noise, fresher air, better road conditions – improvements across the board.

With immense improvements in travel efficiency, the businesses in the London core can more easily get their employees to and from meetings and otherwise function better. A survey of businesses in and around the central core found that 70% supported the congestion charge if the revenues fund public transit, with only 20% opposed. Those in central London’s all-important financial services industry favoured the congestion charge in even larger numbers.

The 20% who opposed the congestion charge come largely from the ranks of retailers, many of whom report flat or even reduced sales. The retailers believed that the £5 charge was keeping shoppers at home. Their difficulty, it turns out, stemmed less from the £5 charge than from a 15% reduction in tourism following 9/11, mainly from free-spending Americans, coupled with the shutdown of London’s Central Line for part of the year following a derailment, which prevented some 250,000 shoppers from visiting Central London. The total number of shoppers deterred by the charge? A trivial 300 a day, out of the 4,000 fewer people a day who enter the downtown core. Now that tourism has come back and the Central Line has been repaired, year-over-year retail sales in the central area rose 4.7% for January, outpacing retail’s gain in London as a whole.

With reviewers overwhelmingly giving London’s daring gamble the thumbs up, cities around the world are planning to bring the same road show to town. According to studies by Deloitte consultants, 26 cities in 15 European countries show “significant support” for London-style road reforms, as do almost half of the cities it surveyed in Latin America. Cities in the United States – but not Canada – also have plans to introduce road pricing. The first city to follow London’s lead – Stockholm – will be starting a pilot project next year. The opportunity to clean the air, clear the streets and clean up financially is hard to beat.

The city of London, meanwhile, plans to extend its system, starting with a doubling of the area to be subject to a road charge. On the anniversary of the scheme’s introduction, the city is sending out surveys to 3.3 million householders, asking Londoners for their opinion. The city, of course, already has their answer.

Lawrence Solomon, Executive Director of Urban Renaissance Institute and Energy Probe, February 19, 2004

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