In the run up to the Greater London Authority elections on 3rd May, Centre for London will publish ten policy proposals for London – one a day over ten days. 

In selecting these, we have identified policies that are:

  • Significant ideas that would make a substantial contribution to tackling London’s challenges;
  • Practical – could be introduced over the next four years, before the next election;
  • Cost-neutral – could be introduced without significant increased spending
  • Innovative – new ideas that have yet to be widely proposed;
  • Broadly devolutionary – in keeping with our belief that Parliament should continue to devolve more responsibility to the GLA and downwards to local government.

PROPOSAL #7 CUT CONGESTION AND IMPROVE LONDON’S ENVIRONMENT BY EXTENDING AN OYSTER CARD APPROACH TO LONDON’S ROADS

London is an increasingly congested city, and with the population expected to continue to grow, congestion is only likely to get worse, with negative consequences for liveability, air quality, carbon emissions and economic competitiveness.  

One policy however could make a substantial contribution to reducing congestion on London’s roads: pay-as-you-go congestion charging (road pricing).   

Though the case for congestion charging has been more popular on the left than the right, it is founded on good market principles - one of the first people to argue for it was the free market economist Milton Friedman.  Road pricing is simply an economically efficient way of allocating an increasingly scarce resource (road space).  For that reason, the theoretical case for road pricing is now accepted by most economists and the policy is supported by a wide array of business organisations

Smart technologies are making road pricing ever less costly.  And it should not hard to design a scheme for London which actually reduces the costs of using a car for some car owners – those that use a car infrequently, or on non-congested roads.

One simple idea might be for the Mayor to refund to all car owners the cost of their annual vehicle tax, while introducing road pricing at the same time, perhaps paid for via the Oyster Card. Those that make little use of their cars could well find themselves better of at the end of the year than they are currently. Similarly, discounts could be offered on less polluting, greener vehicles.  Integrating congestion charging with the Oyster Card, would allow people to make a direct calculation as to the costs and benefits of using the car versus using public transport.

The principle that we should pay more to travel at busier than quiet times, or more popular than less popular routes is already well established - notably on the railways.  While the Congestion Zone covers less than 2 per cent of London's roads, it has proved broadly popular, and demonstrated that road charging can be effective.  And while congestion charging schemes have been rejected in referendums held in Edinburgh and Manchester they have passed the test of public opinion in other cities like Stockholm.  The key seems to be to introduce the scheme first and then once it is established, hold a vote on whether to remove it - Londoners might be surprised by the benefits of a fairer approach to London's roads.

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