I have been doing a piece of research on congestion charging which has involved looking back at the history of its use across the world and it is very difficult not to admire what Ken Livingstone has done in London.
Until Livingstone came along, there were only two similar schemes in the world. In Singapore, there was a long established system which charged people motorists entering the central business district. Originally based on paper, it had been modernised into an electronic system in 1997 and has been successful in keeping congestion down. Other than that, several towns in Norway had cordon systems, charging motorists with the aim of raising money for transport infrastructure rather than reducing traffic.
With all due respect to Singapore and Norway, introducing a congestion charging system in London was on a completely different scale. Moreover, Livingstone had to do it quickly because he was only elected for a four year term and needed to ensure any teething problems had been overcome before facing the electorate. His political advisers all said don’t do it, the media, particularly the Evening Standard¸ was extreme in its opposition, and yet he pressed ahead regardless. And the scheme has universally being seen as a success, both in raising revenue and in cutting congestion, its principal aim.
Contrast this with government policy on the roads. Faced with a strange alliance of fuel tax protestors, tanker drivers and, it seems, the police who were unwilling to do to them what they did to the miners in 1984 – i.e. baton them out of the way – the government panicked and kicked any idea of raising fuel prices out of its policy window. So traffic growth proceeds regardless and little is done to address the greatest threat facing us all, global warming.
Contrast, too, Livingstone’s use of technology – albeit a relatively simple one involving photographing number plates – with the timid approach of the Highways Agency highlighted in the recent National Audit Office report, Tackling congestion by making use of England’s motorways and trunk roads, on using new technologies to improve the capacity of roads. There are all sorts of ideas, such as using the hard shoulder, reversing the flow at peak times or lanes for use only by high occupancy vehicles that the Agency has been reluctant to deploy, other than the odd pilot. Yet they are being widely implemented in other countries, with great success.
Comparing Livingstone’s courage with this timidity demonstrates the extent of his achievement. I had never been an enormous fan of the cheeky chappy mayor, but I have been won over. You have to hand it to him – he dared and he won. If only Tony Blair were half as courageous on transport policy as Livingstone has been – or indeed, as he has been himself on his misguided Iraq policy – we could be an example to the rest of the world in tackling transport problems. Instead, we lag behind.