Sunday 17 February 2013 8:04 pm

Congestion charge after ten years: It’s time to be bolder

IT’S exactly a decade since London’s congestion charge was introduced. Its immediate impact was a dramatic fall in traffic volumes, and there are still around 60,000 fewer vehicles entering the central zone every day. But with 23m journeys made on London’s roads each day, congestion is now back to pre-charge levels.

Over the next 20 years, population growth will add the equivalent of a city the size of Birmingham to London, making it even harder to achieve the right balance between the competing needs of motorists, freight, buses, cyclists and pedestrians. We can’t have everything, everywhere, all the time. So we need to be more imaginative about solutions.

And there are only three realistic options: to manage traffic flows better; to provide new road capacity; or to reduce the number of vehicles on the road by expanding and improving the congestion charge.

The first of these options is a no-brainer. Making traffic lights more responsive to actual traffic flows, and investing in modern control centres and technology, would reduce congestion. The Olympics showed what can be done to shift freight movements and deliveries to off-peak periods. Traffic flows could be improved by making those one-off measures permanent.

The second option – adding new road space – is more of a challenge. The mayor’s recent announcement of new investment in remodelling junctions, like Old Street and Elephant and Castle, is great news. We have progressed in the way we design roads since the 1960s, and now know that it’s possible to make junctions safer and more pleasant at the same time as improving the flow of traffic. 

But adjusting a few key junctions will not on its own deliver the sort of capacity we need to support London’s growth. We must look at what can be done to add new road space. This doesn’t mean brutalist new motorways, like the Hammersmith flyover. Cities like Stockholm and Oslo are looking at how to shift key roads underground with tunnels and “fly-unders”. London must look and learn. How about some new “flyunders” to improve links between the West End, the City and Canary Wharf?

Finally, 10 years on, it’s time to look afresh at congestion charging. Despite the original scheme’s detractors, reducing traffic has enabled more rational use of the available space, the creation of new pedestrian spaces (like Trafalgar Square) and investment in public transport.

But bigger and bolder decisions are needed to keep London moving. We need a more sophisticated congestion charging scheme, covering a greater area. Singapore could be an example to follow. Its electronic road pricing system sees prices vary by type of vehicle, direction of travel, location and time of day. It’s operated through a simple system of on-board units with pre-paid smart cards, and has increased average road speeds by around 20 per cent. If applied to London, any revenue raised could fund further improvements to our roads. Congestion affects all those who live, work and travel around London. To stop our city grinding to a halt, it’s time to get radical.

Baroness Jo Valentine is chief executive of London First.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.