What is a congestion charge for?

A road sign saying "Transport for London, Congestion charging, Central Zone, Mon-Fri 7am-6pm". The street scene behind is blurred but seems to include a Hard Rock Café sign.London mayor Sadiq Khan issues £2.5m VW congestion charge call

So, Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, is demanding that Volkswagen pay up £2.5m to compensate the London taxpayer for a discount that drivers of some of their diesel cars received from the London Congestion Charge as it was thought that they produced low emissions, which it is now known, since the “defeat devices” scandal, that they did not. 80,000 of these VW, Seat, Skoda and Audi cars were registered in London, although how many of them went into the congestion charge zone (the area inside the Inner Ring Road) every day is not clear. Probably more of them were used for commutes outside that zone, where there are some of the worst polluted roads in the country (like sections of the North Circular Road).

I was always opposed to the Congestion Charge right from when Ken Livingstone first proposed it before the 2000 mayoral election. Although perhaps it was beyond the mayor’s powers, I supported simply removing most of the parking in central London other than short stay and for residents, traders, disabled badge holders and maybe a few premium parking spots. The Congestion Charge was intended as a tax to fund public transport and was levied on goods vehicles as well, resulting in increased costs for companies that needed to deliver into central London. When Livingstone extended it into west London (which was largely responsible for losing him the 2008 mayoral election), a lot of his fans justified this on the grounds that “rich bastards” in places like Kensington would have to pay, but in fact those who drove from the new zone into the old one ended up paying less (not everyone in either part of the zone was rich; there are substantial tracts of council estate in Newington, North Kensington, Pimlico and elsewhere.)

A sign on a London street saying "Transport for London: Low Emission Zone". A metallic turquoise car speeds past behind it; some Mock Tudor houses are the other side of the road.Similarly, the Low Emission Zone had the effect of driving businesses that could not afford to upgrade to new or almost-new trucks out of business or out of London; companies that could afford it cascaded the old trucks to their depots out of London and probably moved the newer ones in, making the job of lorry drivers (and the air) in the provinces a bit less pleasant. They also imposed it on industrial estates that are right on the edge of town, entirely pointlessly (as they are often accessed only by roads which are excluded). Again, the effect is to privilege bigger companies or those with access to big credit which can afford to buy new trucks and vans; companies outside London still running ‘old’ trucks (and bear in mind, Euro 4 — the minimum standard requried to come into the zone without paying a £200 daily charge — only appeared in 2007) are put at a disadvantage.

None of the cars mentioned in that report are tiny. They take up as much space on the road as any other average-sized hatchback. Exemptions should apply only to motorcycles and to very small cars which contribute little to congestion, regardless of their environmental footprint. After all, a road jammed up with ‘clean’ cars is still a jammed-up road, and buses and delivery vehicles can’t get through; encouraging people to buy new ‘clean’ cars does not actually help the environment, as the old car will probably be sold and kept running, and the production of the new car also causes pollution. A congestion charge should be targeted at reducing congestion, which means reducing the number of people commuting and cutting through by car — the environmental footprint may be low but the physical footprint is still the same.

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