It’s no secret that our inner-city roads are overcrowded. Ingrained social habit, desire for status and late-night repeats of Top Gear have all contributed to a culture where driving is the norm and catching the bus a sign of personal failure. Obviously, this isn’t great for the environment or our health. According to a 2012 study, UK air pollution kills twice as many people as traffic accidents – a figure that soars even higher in the smog-bound mega cities of Asia and Latin America. In the face of such damning statistics, it’s unsurprising more and more cities are beginning to turn to measures like congestion charges. But do they work? Here we take a look at the impact the charge has had in cities such as London.
With a few exceptions, the general public are less-likely to be sold on something as a ‘green initiative’ than they are a ‘personal convenience’ one. Thus when the London congestion charge was introduced in 2003, one of the big claims made in its favor was that it would reduce traffic and improve journey times. According to TFL, this is exactly what’s happened – they claim that there are now 15% fewer cars on the road, with a corresponding 30% improvement in journey time. However, their figures are highly disputed. A 2007 BBC article noted that congestion had returned to “pre-charge levels”, while the Independent in 2008 declared that “despite there being fewer cars on the road, congestion rose markedly”. The counter-argument claims that London traffic has been growing year on year for decades – meaning that, while we may now have more cars on the road than before the charge; without the charge we would have even more. The result: inconclusive.
In the world of business, the big scare about the congestion charge was that it would drive away customers – affecting income and employment, and generally having a negative economic knock-on effect. When the charge first came in, it seemed fears were founded: John Lewis claimed a 7% sales drop in 2003 was a direct result of the new fee. However, a study reported in the Guardian found no correlation between falling profits and the charge, suggesting its impact may have been neutral at worst. Yet horror stories of companies flushing thousands of pounds a year down the drain keep surfacing, and no single conclusive study from an independent (i.e.: not TFL) source has been able to say once and for all what affect it has had. But, since most inner-London stores are continuing to post record profits a decade later, the safe money is on the Guardian’s assessment.
While its affects may be uncertain elsewhere, several studies have concluded that the congestion charge has been unanimously good for health. As early as 2008, the BBC reported that pollution reduction had resulted in a small but noticeable boost to public health, while the London ambulance service reported a tripling in cardiac arrest survival rates. Partly this was due to improved equipment, but the congestion charge is said to have played a part, making it easier for ambulances to get to and from the scene of accidents.
London’s pollution remains high enough to knock 11 years off your life – with different think tanks unsure as to the congestion charge’s role in reducing it. While the above BBC article claimed a small reduction was evident, a report for the Londonist argued that there had been no reduction at all. But indications are that pursuing the policy further may yet have an effect: just last year Boris Johnson unveiled plans to not only upgrade all London taxis to electric by 2020, but also extend the congestion charge’s remit to create Europe’s first ‘ultra-low emission zone’. By banning all but very-low and no emission cars from the city centre, the planned extension to Ken Livingston’s biggest legacy may yet make a drastic difference to the city. Only time will tell.