Starters of urban change (7) Urban toll in London

Congestion Charge, London’s urban toll system, is among the rare cases in which a politician states his admiration before a measure that has worked better than forecasted (at least that’s what he said to the BBC).

Let us use here what some urban economy teachers say. Imagine an ET hovering over planet earth, and how he could be puzzled to see our behavior on car flows; you pay tolls to use motorways that seldom have any congestion, while in large cities, which can put to test anyone’s patience, moving by car is free. The scarcity of a good (fluidity) does not influence its price.

This first idea deserves some considerations: since the introduction of parameters and (especially in Europe) air quality control measures, moving your car in a central district remains relatively free, but the moment you decide to stop and park, you are in for a step bill. This helps improve air quality, but is felt by some as a social division between haves and have not’s in terms of accessibility to urban cores; I think that this is not necessarily the case, as in a reasonably designed public transportation system fares are always much more affordable than car ownership. Sure, you have all the right to feel better in your car, as you have no need to smell other people’s smells, but you have no need to organize your trip according to parking availability and you can do many useful things (even just thinking) while someone else focuses his/her attention on steering a vehicle. I think it’s rather an issue of what you want to do with commute times that can be very long for some, and feelings, but access times are not necessarily longer for the most (sure, if you make many stops things can change, but you need to factor in the parking hurdle).

It seems the system has worked rather well; tariffs have helped boost public transport, and reduce pollution with positive effects on public health. Citizens, as on almost any other issue, are divided between pros and cons. Traffic levels have gone down 10,2% in 10 years, but travel time remains the same for motorists.

An interesting thing in this measure is that it was approved by a Labor government and presented by some as a left wing interventionist policy, but later has been maintained by Conservatives (even if they scraped the western extension), and new restrictions are being planned for 2020.

But few cities have followed that path: more often than not, the fear of losing votes.

One comment

  1. We are looking at proposals for light rail, new tolls and wider roads. None have a funding source identified (tolls would go into the general transportation fund) but I’m reasonably sure that I won’t see a chance to ride light rail to work before I retire. In order to avoid traffic congestion, I go to work an hour early.

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