Friday 27 January 2017 4:01 am

Why road pricing could help liberate London’s roads from congestion

Alexander Jan is chief economist at Arup.

It's been a tough few months for London’s commuters and drivers. A combination of bad tempered industrial disputes, burst water mains and fog have made the journey to work particularly challenging for the 3m or so people who often have to battle through the morning peak.

Good timing perhaps for a new report from the London Assembly’s Transport Committee on tackling congestion; a problem that sometimes feels as old as the city itself. Drawn up by a cross-party group, the document comes up with a range of proposals.

These include measures to reduce the number of vehicles involved in deliveries as well as tightening up on the impact of road works; heftier charges for the utilities are mooted. More radically, the report floats the idea of an eventual shift away from the Congestion Charge towards road pricing. This would extend outside central London and vary by time of day. It could replace the Treasury’s road tax that these days is electronically enforced.

The idea of charging users for road space was talked about more than 50 years ago in Sir Colin Buchanan’s seminal work Traffic in Towns. Since then reports making the case for road pricing of one sort or another have been made by many lobby groups and academics. With the notable exception of Ken Livingstone’s bold introduction of the Congestion Charge, proposals have come up hard against politicians’ understandable nervousness to heap a new tax onto the hard pressed motorist.

The Assembly’s report is intriguing in some of its analysis. It reveals a remarkable but perhaps little known fact: since 2012-13 London’s roads have been carrying less traffic but delays have been going up. This is true for major roads right across the city – not just in the central area. In fact official records show that traffic volumes have been falling across London for at least 15 years. Between 2000 and 2015, central London numbers were down nearly 20 per cent. And in outer London – which is much more car dependent – they fell 7 per cent over the same period.

Despite these reduced volumes, TfL statistics show that average vehicle delay has been rising across the city. Greener Journeys, a campaign group says that the Number 25, a flagship bus route that runs to Oxford Circus, has seen its journey time nearly double compared to half a century ago.

So what has been driving these trends? The picture is complicated. In central London, around a quarter of road space on key routes has been reallocated to cycle lanes to cut accidents and encourage biking. There has also been an increase in traffic lights; in 2015 there were 280 more compared with 2008. Their adjusted settings give pedestrians more time at busy junctions.

Roadworks have been a major source of delay. There were a million road “openings” in London in 2009. Despite the use of a permit scheme, research by London First shows that the number of roadworks increased more than threefold between 2012 and 2015 alone.

Tackling London’s congestion will require a mix of responses. Using existing road space more flexibly might be one of them. Many congested roads are surrounded by largely empty ones. Similarly, measures could be taken to tame road works more ruthlessly. The City of London and Canary Wharf appear particularly good at doing this.

And planning shared infrastructure might help. The 2012 Olympic site had a system of joint space for utilities so that things only got dug up once. In some parts of London, a few more roads might be needed to help open up land for new homes. With the advent of Crossrail, TfL is reviewing its central London bus operations.

More ambitiously, if the mayor and boroughs were to go for road charging, it would need to be far more flexible than the Congestion Charge. As the Assembly report notes, prices would need to change by time of day and depending on how busy the roads were. In return for payments, Londoners would need to see real improvements in their journeys. The resources raised would have to be kept in the city and ploughed back into transport. Air quality and journey times would need to improve.

Devolving the car tax from Whitehall to city halls would be a good start. But for any of these initiatives to succeed, there is a need for a debate as to what London’s roads are actually for and how they should be best used. Action is needed urgently to allow London to thrive and grow. If road pricing’s time has finally come, we can’t afford to wait another 50 years before we implement it.