Fixing London’s congestion problem

It’s been 13 years since the congestion charge was introduced in London, and it paved the way to help change how Londoners travel.

Now, as our population continues to grow apace and we look to liberate street space for other uses, policy makers need to find new solutions that help shift our everyday trips to foot, bike and public transport in order for London to remain a prosperous, healthy city for all.

London has thrived for decades because of its constrained roads.

London’s physical constraints have led us to pioneer better transport: the world’s first underground railway, the original congestion charge, contactless tickets for public transport, and reallocating space for people cycling and walking.

Since 2000, there has been a 10.4 percentage point shift from private transport to public transport, walking and cycling. According to Transport for London (TfL) no other major global city has achieved such a significant shift away from private transport. This is impressive, but congestion seems to be a problem that doesn’t go away. The key to understand whether it is getting better or worse is to look at what’s happening to traffic.

The latest Travel in London report tells us that motor-traffic levels have declined 10% since 2000. But in the last two years alone, traffic levels in Central London increased slightly after this decade of decline. This is thought to be driven largely by increases in the numbers of vans and lorries, possibly brought about by the post-recession construction boom, online shopping and all the additional services that a growing population and thriving economy demands. Meanwhile at a national level, traffic volumes continue to increase – surpassing the pre-recession peak of 2007 for the first time last year.

TfL states that around 75% of the delay to motorists in London is due to ‘excess traffic’, that is, too many vehicles for the capacity of the network or stretch of road. So it’s key to get people (and goods) out of motor vehicles and either travelling less or travelling smarter.

Here are four principles for tackling it:

1. Rule out new roads
From academic debate in the 1950s, to government reports in the 1990s and more recent studies, it is widely recognised that when new roads are built or existing ones widened, new motor traffic appears. There are two kinds of uplift; ‘induced traffic’ – people who change how they travel to take advantage of new capacity; and ‘generated traffic’ – entirely new trips that weren’t made before. When this happens, congestion levels generally remain the same or get worse, so rule out building new roads. It tends to make the problem worse.

2. Continue to invest in space for more efficient modes of transport – space for buses, cycling and walking
Buses, cycles and pavements can move more of us more efficiently in a given space. This is more important as our city grows. Around 1,200 people per hour are using the new north-south Cycle Superhighway in the peak – that’s about 920 cars (given current occupancy rates) or 15 full buses. Without investments like these we wouldn’t have seen the major shift away from private transport that we have – with its benefits to our health, our environment and our city’s economy. In an ideal world, those who aren’t travelling by car aren’t affected by congestion. In reality, we still have a long way to go. To expedite people cycling or on buses through congestion blackspots, we need to see more innovative bus priority measures and cycle tracks help reduce the impact of congestion, while side streets that are relieved of through-traffic can become quick, clean and pleasant short-cuts for active travel.

3. Revisit congestion charging, it has been vital to recent progress
The change in how Londoners travel just wouldn’t have been possible without London’s congestion charge. When it was introduced in 2003, traffic in the congestion charge zone reduced by 18%, freeing up road space to help create more bus lanes, cycle lanes and better pedestrian crossings and pedestrianised spaces. Alongside Living Streets and the Campaign for Better Transport, we’d like to see an investigation into a charge linked more closely to the congestion caused, that makes sure the people using the roads are those that really need to, giving them more reliable journeys. Small changes to the existing charge such as tolling for each entry and exit or varying the price by time could also make a big difference. Road user charging like this is perhaps the only way to really tackle traffic congestion.

4. Put a team on it – for quick wins, clever tricks and overcoming any regulatory barriers
Working with the construction sector, Transport for London – led by the mayor – has changed the sector’s culture and practices toward cycle safety. They’ve recently started to engage utilities and developers to understand how they can minimise the impact on traffic – with already good results. In the short-term there’s a lot to be done to better manage the impacts of development, deliveries and demand, and a team of experts can work together with the key sectors to achieve the best results. They did it during the Olympics in 2012, so why not pick up the activity again?

Investment in space for walking and cycling is the way to cope with the rising population and our capital’s challenges but to target and tackle traffic congestion we need to make changes to the congestion charge, seriously consider road user charging, and work to make more efficient use of vehicles.

The London Assembly Transport Committee are expected to report on their findings to the mayor early this year. Let’s hope they follow these four principles.

Photo by David Holt London


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7 years ago

There is certainly a need to make and re-make these arguments, especially when well informed individuals such as MP Rob Flello make such outrageous comments:

Nicholas Sanderson
Nicholas Sanderson
7 years ago
Reply to  David

I agree. The Parliamentary Transport Committee is holding an inquiry at the moment – I think because cycle lanes are easy to see and point to, they get a lot of the blame. But really they’re a small part of the contribution at a time when traffic levels have started to increase again.

John Elliott
John Elliott
7 years ago

It is time to think outside Central London (though we probably still need to do more for central London as well). We need a congestion charge in inner or preferably the whole of London.
Rather than widening the M25 surely we could put Park and Ride rail stations where lines cross it and have a congestion charge for anybody coming inside the M25. Londoners should get a preferential rate when they use their cars but not free. It could also be popular with Londoners (plus the people outside the administrative area of London like Watford Banstead etc) and deal with the massive pollution problem we have in London.

Nicholas Sanderson
Nicholas Sanderson
7 years ago

Hi John, I agree – any new scheme will have to go beyond Central London. There’s an astonishing stat on the proportion of peak M25 traffic that is people making very short journeys. I’m not so sure on your second point, but the first step is to get TfL to undertake feasibility and develop some options to improve the effect of the current zone and consider pricing schemes more widely.

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