Londoners will soon be paying £15 to drive into the city after an agreement between the British Government and Transport for London (or TfL) aimed at keeping London’s transportation infrastructure running as revenue from fares dropped off during the covid-19 lockdown.
While London mayor Sadiq Khan expressed relief that a deal was reached to keep trains and buses running, he also explained that he holds the British government responsible for the decision to increase the congestion charge to cover for decreased fare revenue, a decision that he says pushes responsibility for paying for critical infrastructure onto individuals, even as job losses and other economic tolls mount.
The reason that the deal is leading the city to raise the fees is that TfL has seen a near 90 percent drop in ridership on trains and buses while the lockdown has kept people at home and fears of transmission have many many especially wary of public transit. This drop in ridership has dealt severe economic damage to TfL, which, according to the Guardian, relies on fares for more than 90 percent of its operating costs. If demand transit dropped by 90 percent, and TfL requires those fares for 90 percent of its costs, it’s pretty clear that the situation was dire enough to require extreme intervention. That intervention came to the tune of a £1.1 billion grant but also £505 million in debt. Repaying that debt was the price to play, and now London’s drivers are going to be responsible for a big piece of it through the congestion charge increase.
London’s drivers are already more than familiar with paying for the right to access roads in the most traffic-prone and snarled areas in the center of the city. Since 2003, drivers of most vehicles have been required to pay a Congestion Charge, which, before its temporary curtailment at the beginning of the lockdown, has stood at £11.50 per day for passenger cars. Exemptions exist for taxis, motorcycles, cars owned by disabled drivers, and others, but for the most part, all drivers have to pay. Additionally, the city has recently introduced another zone, called the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone, or ULEZ, where drivers of older cars and trucks must shell out an additional fee for access if their vehicles don’t meet emissions requirements.
Now, though, the Congestion charge is expected to go up to £15. At that point, driving something interesting like, say, a 1981 Citroen CX, into central London would cost £27.50 before fuel and parking. And that’s just for private cars.
Despite gripes about cost, the schemes have been touted as successful in keeping the notoriously traffic-choked city center of London considerably less congested and smoggy, and for encouraging use of public transportation. But there is no doubt that some Londoners are disproportionately affected by the pricing structure, and that those effects will worsen as rates increase.
As lockdown measures ease in London and more workers begin commuting into their jobs again, the city’s public transportation system, still not operating at 100 percent capacity, is getting more crowded again. But though the system’s ridership is recovering somewhat, it is likely to be a considerable amount of time before ridership is back at pre-pandemic levels. Perhaps this increase in traffic was included in the calculus for raising the Congestion Charge to the expected £15 as part of the debt repayment plan, but it nonetheless will also deter some drivers who were already wary of the already high price and who now can’t afford it at all. With all of that in mind, it will be interesting to see how traffic patterns change in London as the pandemic passes, especially as the city implements other efforts to change traffic patterns to make more room for cyclists and pedestrians as well.
While Britain and London attempt to come to some sort of consensus regarding how to use their congestion pricing tools to save the city’s public transit system and create traffic patterns for the post-pandemic reality, American cities are just barely beginning to implement congestion pricing programs of their own.
New York’s program, announced last year, would implement roughly similar pricing to London for entering Manhattan below 60th Street and is expected to generate at least $1 billion in revenue that could be used for other city infrastructure projects. Though the plan faces challenges within the city, it also is opposed by the federal government. According to the Wall Street Journal, the federal government could block the plan on grounds that highways built with federal funds can’t be tolled. However, there does exist an exception for traffic-discouragement, which the New York plan should fall under that could allow for federal approval.
Even if the federal government does eventually approve New York’s congestion pricing scheme, the difference between the foot-dragging in America and the pressure to increase pricing in Great Britain is stark. Eventually, though, it appears that it will be implemented in New York at some point.
When that point does come, changes in transportation practices resulting from the pandemic should come into consideration as the scheme is implemented. When even our friend Aaron Gordon at Motherboard is beginning to understand why people are driving more during the pandemic, it’s clear that soft public transit demand and more cars on the road will be characteristics of New York City for some time to come.
Like London, New York will need to adapt its plans to fit the post-pandemic situation. Whether that means they will proceed as planned with the system or scale it up, or back remains to be seen, but we’ll be watching it closely.