Sunday, 17 February 2013

What the congestion charge did

The London congestion charge was ten years old this week, which provoked a bit of discussion about it, most notable for the absence of anyone seriously calling for it to be abolished. As Adam Bienkov points out, its introduction in 2003 was by contrast preceded by an avalanche of criticism and predictions of doom, much of it motivated more by political grievance than by evidence or principle.

I think the best way to get a sense of the C-charge's impact is to look at Transport for London's data (here, under 'Central London Peak Count') showing how people travelled into central London during the weekday morning rush-hour between 1978 and 2011. The chart below shows the trend for people arriving by car or motorcycle only (for some reason TfL don't separate the two out).

The number of people entering central London by car (and motorbike) has clearly been trending downwards since the early 1980s, but just as clearly there was a very big drop in the early 2000s. What's really interesting is that although there was a big dros (of about 20,000) in 2003, the first year of the C-charge, that was preceded by two years of almost equally big drops in 2001 and 2002. I don't know very much about what transport policy was like back then but given that the same TfL data shows a concurrent spike upwards in bus ridership it does look rather like a generalised 'Livingstone effect' rather than something limited to the congestion charge alone, though obviously that was a very important part of it.

More recently the decline in car traffic has slowed a bit and in 2011 there was even a small increase, though hardly a noteworthy one. And if anyone is dissatisfied with current congestion levels in London, as for example the AA seem to be, the obvious answer is to campaign vigorously for an increase in the charge.


  1. Same CAPC report shows that bus share of into-central-area traffic rose steadily from 2000, so I'd suggest the decline in car use was at least partly due to better/cheaper buses (partly paid for from CC income after 2003, of course). TfL point this out themselves:

    "A gradual decrease in total morning peak travel to central London until 2003, followed by a generally rising trend for the rest of the decade, with the level in 2011 being 5 per cent above that of 2000. The increase between 2010 and 2011 was 3 per cent.
    • A reduction of over half – 51 per cent – in the number of people using the car. The impact of the introduction of congestion charging in 2003 is visible in the figure, but is not the only factor involved in this dramatic shift away from private transport for these journeys.
    • An increase of 55 percent in the use of the bus – broadly mirroring the pattern of large-scale increases in bus use seen more widely in London over the same period.
    • A 179 per cent increase in cycling to central London, again mirroring wider trends for this mode as reported in Travel in London report 5."


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