The white on red C marks all entrances to the Congestion Charge zone.
The London Congestion Charge is a fee that charges motorists entering the Central London area. London was not the first city to adopt congestion charging but as of 2004 is the largest city to do so. The organization responsible for administering the charge is Transport for London (TfL).
The fee was introduced on February 17, 2003. The daily fee of £5 must be paid by the registered owner of a vehicle which enters, leaves or moves around within the Congestion Charge zone between 7 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., Monday to Friday. If the charge is not paid by 10 p.m. on the day of travel the charge is increased to £10: this is intended to cut the number of last-minute payments. Failure to pay by midnight means a fine of at least £50. On 1 April 2005, London mayor Ken Livingstone announced that the fee will rise to £8 per day from 4 July 2005.
Some vehicles such as buses, minibuses (over a certain size), taxis, emergency service vehicles, i.e ambulances, fire engines and police vechiles, motorcycles, alternative fuel vehicles and bicycles are exempt from the charge (technically, some of the exemptions are 100% discounts and still require registration). Residents of the zone are eligible for a 90% discount if they pay the charge for a week or more at once.
The stated aim of the scheme is to encourage travellers to use public transport, cleaner vehicles, bicycles, motorcycles or their own two feet instead of motor cars and vans, thus reducing congestion and allowing for faster, less polluting and more predictable journeys. TfL says that much of the money raised in the scheme is invested in public transport.
Other cities using congestion charging zones around the world include Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim and Singapore - the first city to do so, in 1998. (Full comparison at ).
The charging zone
The present boundary of the zone is sometimes referred to as the London Inner Ring Road. Starting at the northernmost point and moving clockwise, the major roads defining the boundary are Pentonville Road, City Road, Old Street, Commercial Street, Mansell Street, Tower Bridge Road, New Kent Road, Elephant and Castle, Vauxhall Bridge Road, Park Lane, Edgware Road, Marylebone Road and Euston Road (other roads fill the small gaps between these roads). The zone therefore includes the whole of the City of London, the city's financial district, and the West End, the city's primary commercial and entertainment centre. There are also 136,000 residents living within the zone (of a total population of around 7,000,000 in Greater London), though the zone is primarily thought of (and zoned) as commercial rather than residential. There is little heavy industry within the zone. Drivers do not need to pay to use roads on the boundary. Over the Christmas and New Year period of 2002 markings were painted on all roads entering the zone to warn drivers of their need to pay the charge.
Technology and enforcement
Closed-circuit cameras and vans police the zone capturing live video. Vans can be identified by a sticker on the back door (inset).
Two hundred and thirty CCTV-style cameras, of which 180 are installed at the edge of the zone, record a stream of video of roads in the zone. There are also a number of mobile camera units which may be deployed anywhere in the zone. It is estimated that around 98% of vehicles moving within the zone are caught on camera. The video streams are then transmitted to a data centre located in Central London where a computer system equipped with Automatic number plate recognition software deduces the registration plate of the vehicle. A second data centre provides a backup location for image data.
Although this process is not infallible, it only needs to have a reasonable probability of success to have a deterrent effect. It appears that both front and back number plates are being captured, on cars going both in and out. This gives up to four chances to capture the number plates of a typical car entering and exiting the zone.
In addition to the 180 cameras on the edge of the zone, there are fifty further cameras placed within it. These cameras are intended to pick up cars that are missed on entry and/or exit and those that are moving solely within the zone.
This list is then compared with a list of cars whose owners/operators have paid to enter the zone. Those that have paid but not been seen in the central zone are not refunded, but those that have not paid and are seen are fined. The registered owner of such a vehicle is looked up in a database provided by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA), based in Swansea. The fine is £100, reduced to £50 if paid within 14 days.
Why the Congestion Charge is notable
The congestion plan has attracted a lot of attention for several reasons. It is the first large scale congestion charge scheme to be introduced in the UK (a much smaller £2 scheme has been trialled in Durham). If successful in reducing traffic congestion, other busy cities around the world are likely to follow suit. The plan relies on advanced technology. Drivers may pay the charge on the Web, by SMS text message, in shops equipped with a PayPoint or by phone. The total cost of implementing the scheme, including setting up the cameras, the call centre for processing payments and advertising to notify motorists of the scheme's introduction is in excess of £250m. The scheme is expected to pay for itself within three years.
The whole idea has been heavily criticised by some opponents. They argue that the public transport network has insufficient spare capacity to cater for travellers deterred from using their cars in the area by the charge. Further it is said the scheme will hit poorer sections of society more than the rich, as the charge to enter the zone is a flat £5 for all, regardless of vehicle size. To balance this, however, it has been pointed out that there is no free non-residents' parking available within the zone during the charging period and that the fee is generally less than that charged for an hour's parking.
Transport for London contracted Capita plc to implement the scheme. Subcontractors include Mastek Ltd, based in Mumbai, India, who are responsible for much of the IT infrastructure. They claim that it is the largest project to date implemented using Microsoft's .NET platform. Due to the wide spread around the globe of sub-contractors and because some data protection regulations vary from country to country, the scheme has prompted concerns about privacy from technology specialists .
The Congestion Charge in operation
Street markings and a sign (inset) of the familiar white-on-red Cs alert drivers to the charge at Old Street.
Before the Charge's introduction, there were fears of a very chaotic few days as the charge bedded down. Indeed Ken Livingstone (London mayor and key proponent of the Charge) himself predicted a "bloody day". In fact, the first two days saw a dramatic reduction in inner city traffic. On the first day 190,000 vehicles moved into or within the zone during charging hours, a decrease of around 25% on normal traffic levels. Excluding 45,000 exempt vehicles, the decrease was more than 30%. Anecdotal evidence suggests journey times were decreased by as much as half. Just over 100,000 motorists paid the charge personally, 15–20,000 were fleet vehicles paying under fleet arrangements and it is believed around 10,000 liable motorists did not pay the due charge. An extra 300 buses (out of a total of around 20,000) were introduced on the same day. Bus network and London Underground managers reported that buses and tubes were little, if at all, busier than normal. Anecdotal evidence has suggested that crowding — which is always a problem at rush-hours on the tube network — has increased somewhat.
Initially it was believed that the reduction in traffic was caused by the half-term school holidays but this has proved not to be the case. Reports consistently indicate that over the first month or so of operation, traffic was down at least 15% on pre-Charge levels (the first week had a decrease of 20%, the first day 30%). Journey times have correspondingly crept back towards pre-Charge levels, following initial reported time-savings of as much as 50%. Although very precise statistics are less readily available than just after the Charge's introduction, chiefly because media attention is now directed elsewhere, the general feeling was that the Charge was having the intended effect.
On October 23, 2003, Transport for London published a report surveying the first six months of the Charge (report in PDF format: ). The main findings of the report were that on average the number of cars entering the central zone was 60,000 fewer than the previous year, representing a drop in non-exempt vehicles of 30%. Around 50–60% of this reduction was attributed to transfers to public transport, 20–30% to journeys avoiding the zone and the remainder to car-sharing, reduced number of journeys, more travelling outside the hours of operation and increased use of motorbikes and cycles. Journey times were found to have been reduced by 15%. Variation in journey time for a particular route repeated on many occasions also decreased.
The report said that the charge was responsible for only a small fraction of the drop in retail sales. In August 2003, the John Lewis Partnership had announced that in the first six months of the charge's operation, sales at their Oxford Street store fell by 8% whilst sales at other stores in the Greater London area, but outside the congestion charge zone, such as in Kingston rose. Transport for London said that only around 0.5% of the drop was attributable to the Charge. The organisation said that London is suffering from a long term failure to modernise its transport and other infrastructure and that the charge will in the long-term be a benefit.
The report also stated that around 100,000 penalty fines are issued in each month. Around 2,000 were appealed. The larger than anticipated reduction in traffic numbers meant that Transport for London revenues would be only be £68m — almost half the £130m per year originally expected. The report says that the Charge appears to have no impact, either positive or negative, on road safety — the slow trend towards fewer accidents has continued.
A further report published by Transport for London in October 2004 stated that only 7 of the 13 government's aims for London transport would be met by 2010. The target on reducing congestion will not be met, the report said, suggesting a failure of the congestion charge policy.  However, that report refers to London as a whole; the failure to reduce congestion overall is mostly attributable to the sprawling suburbs, where it is much more difficult to provide a comprehensive public transport network and the car has a much higher share of journeys.
History of the Charge
Many previous toll roads and bridges have existed in England both now and in the past. Tolls became popular in England in the late 1600s following the decline of roads after the Protestant Reformation (Catholic monks no longer maintained the roads). By the end of the 1700s the intercity road network in England was primarily a toll road network of turnpikes. Toll roads eventually died out in the late 1800s due to competition from railways and complaints from users making longer trips (thus needing to pay more tolls).
Whilst the scheme for a toll on inner-city roads has been widely credited to London mayor Ken Livingstone, Livingstone himself credits the idea of congestion charging to the right-wing economist Milton Friedman. General road tolls have also been advocated by many others in the past, such as the 18th Century economist Adam Smith.
Schemes similar to the current Congestion Charge were being considered by the British Government in the mid-1990s. The London Congestion Research Programme (HMSO, ISBN 0-11-551755-3) concluded in July 1995 that the city's economy would benefit from such a scheme. The power to introduce a form of congestion charge was given to any future mayor in the Greater London Authority Act of 1999. Having won the first mayoral election in 2000, Livingstone opted to exercise these powers as promised in his independent manifesto, and carried out a series of consultations with interested parties. The basic scheme was agreed in February 2002 and charging commenced with some concessions accepted on February 17, 2003.
Signs indicate the boundary of the Congestion Charge area.
In the aftermath of the introduction of the Charge, there were a number of suggestions for the future of the Charge. Soon after charging commenced, Livingstone announced that he would carry out a formal review of the Charge's success or failure six months after its introduction — brought forward from one year following the smooth start. On February 25, 2003 Livingstone stated "I can't conceive of any circumstances in the foreseeable future where we would want to change the charge, although perhaps 10 years down the line it may be necessary." referring to the amount that drivers have to pay, indicating that £5 was sufficient to bring about the reduction in traffic that he had hoped for.  By November 2004, Livingstone directly contradicted his earlier stance and said in an interview with BBC London "I have always said that during this term [his second term in office] it will go up to at least £6." . By the end of the month Livingstone had changed tack again, saying in an announcement that in fact the fare rise would be to £8 for private vehicles and £7 for commercial traffic. Business groups such as London First , were furious at the announcement, saying they were "totally unsatisfactory and unacceptable"  . The rise to £8 was formally announced on April 1st 2005, along with discounts for drivers buying month or year long tickets.
Soon after the introduction of the charge, newspapers began to speculate that the extension of the congestion charging zone would form part of Livingstone's manifesto for re-election as mayor (under the Labour Party banner) in 2004. Sure enough, in February 2004, Transport for London issued a consultation document (available online here) on the expansion of the zone to the west. The enlarged zone would cover the rest of Westminster and the borough of Kensington and Chelsea. A detailed map of the enlarged area in PDF format is here. Following Livingstone's success in his bid for re-election in the June 2004 Mayoral race, it seems likely that that the enlarged zone will take effect sometime in 2006, subject to funding availability. In August 2004, the results of the consultation were published. A majority of respondents did not want the extension, however Livingstone said that the consultation "was not representative" and that the extension would go ahead anyway. Critics of Livingstone said that this was proof that the consultation had been a "useless rubber-stamping exercise" that Livingstone had to go through merely to avoid possible legal challenges to the scheme in the future.
Steven Norris, the Conservative Party candidate for mayor in 2004, has been a fierce critic of the charge, branding it the 'Kengestion' charge, and pledged to scrap the charge, had he become mayor in June 2004. He had also pledged that, if elected, he would grant an amnesty to anyone with an outstanding fine for nonpayment of the charge on June 11, 2004. In an interview with London's Evening Standard newspaper on February 5, 2004 , Conservative leader Michael Howard backed his candidate's view by saying "[the Charge] has undoubtedly had a damaging effect on business in London."
Liberal Democrat candidate, Simon Hughes however supported the basic principles of the scheme. Amongst some of the changes proposed include allowing people to pay the following day rather than before 10pm on the day; changing the end time from 6:30pm to 5pm; automatically give all vehicles 5 free days a years so as not to affect occasional visitors. It is extremely unlikely these proposed changes will happen following Livingstone's second mayoral victory.
Further afield, the success of the scheme in reducing the number of cars on the road caused some, such as the Institute for Public Policy Research, a left-wing think tank, to call for similar schemes to be rolled out across the country . However, in November 2003, Secretary of State for Transport Alistair Darling said that despite apparent initial sparks of interest from many city councils, including those of Leeds, Cardiff, Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol, no city apart from Edinburgh had yet approached the Government for assistance in introducing a charge. It seems unlikely that Edinburgh will introduce a scheme anytime soon, after a postal referendum showed that almost 75% of voters in Edinburgh opposed congestion charging. Unlike in London, where Ken Livingstone had sufficient devolved powers to introduce the charge on his own authority, other cities would require the Transport Secretary's blessing.
Cities in other countries have also been monitoring the scheme. For example, city councillors in Queens and Brooklyn cited a report from the London Chamber of Commerce that claimed the charge hurt business to pre-emptively dissuade New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg from introducing a similar scheme .