|The London congestion charge is losing its battle against gridlock after it was revealed that the capital’s streets are as gridlocked now as they were before the levy was introduced.
The Â£8-a-day charge was considered one of the great successes of Ken Livingstone’s reign as mayor after it was introduced five years ago. However, a boom in roadworks and traffic-calming measures has squeezed driving space and pushed up congestion despite a drop in the number of vehicles entering central London.
Pedestrians are expected to bear the consequences of the fightback against lengthening tailbacks, with pedestrian schemes facing the axe and experts calling for shorter crossing times at traffic lights. Boris Johnson, the London mayor, said he would scrap plans for pedestrian areas, take action against road-digging utility companies and allow motorbikes in bus lanes to reverse the tide of congestion.
Transport for London said yesterday that gridlock in the zone is the same as it was before February 2003, when the measure was introduced. There are 100,000 fewer vehicles entering central London but they are taking longer to travel through – driving 1km takes 2.3 minutes longer than it does at quieter times of day.
The latest figures will give ample ammunition to the scheme’s opponents, particularly those who criticised the extension of the charging zone to west London last year as a measure driven more by revenue-raising than green issues. According to yesterday’s TfL report there has been no easing of congestion in the western zone since the charge was rolled out to Kensington and Notting Hill.
Johnson, who has launched a consultation into whether to scrap the extension, said: “I have always thought that the congestion charge is a blunt instrument. It has proved successful in cutting traffic coming into London but on its own has not resolved the problem of congestion. Various works and schemes going on in the capital have also eroded its impact. I am therefore introducing a more comprehensive approach to easing congestion.”
The mayor said he would force utility companies to apply for permits before starting roadworks and announced the scrapping of a plan to pedestrianise part of Parliament Square in Westminster. Traffic light signals will also be “rephased” – or left on green or red for longer periods of time – in order to smooth out traffic.
The scheme’s backers argue that congestion would be even worse without the congestion charge, which is levied on drivers entering central London between 7am and 6pm on weekdays.
Professor Stephen Glaister, a transport specialist at Imperial College London and former TfL board member, said the figures were no surprise because congestion had been inching back to 2002 levels for years. “Congestion would be a lot worse were it not for the charge,” he said.
Congestion levels in the first three years of the charge were up to 30% lower than 2002 results, but the start of roadworks by Thames Water and other utility firms in 2006 started to push congestion back up.
TfL said cramped road space is the biggest congestion menace. It said 70,000 fewer cars enter the original charging zone compared with 2002, with 30,000 fewer entering the western zone, but gridlock has increased because the reduction in road space has been greater. TfL said utility companies make up to 14,000 applications a month to dig up London roads.
Malcolm Murray-Clark, the TfL executive who introduced the scheme, said the central zone was not under threat but admitted that the western extension could be altered or dropped altogether.
Edmund King, president of the AA, said: “It is disappointing that the charge is not doing what it says on the tin, which is to reduce congestion.”
FAQ: Is it the end of the road?
No. For the first three years, Ken Livingstone’s signature policy as London mayor was a success. Congestion fell by up to 30% compared with 2002 levels. Transport experts add that congestion would be even worse if the scheme was not in place – it has taken 100,000 cars out of central and western London.
What went wrong?
According to the mayor’s transport body, Transport for London, congestion shot up from 2006 when there was a dramatic increase in roadworks as London’s gas and water mains underwent repairs. Thames Water has already been convicted for breaking rules on streetworks as a result.
What does this mean for other schemes?
Manchester hopes to launch a scheme in 2013 but stresses that its plans are very different. Under the proposals motorists would be charged to pass through two cordons at peak times.