Congestion charge lessons being relearnt in Ireland

It was going to be chaos. Roads would be jammed with traffic avoiding the centre of London. Protestors would set up road blocks. The police would be overwhelmed. And poorer London motorists would be driven to penury. This was 17th of February 2003 when the world’s biggest congestion charge scheme was about to be introduced in Europe’s largest city.

Ken Livingstone, the Labour mayor, had dismissed these concerns to introduce the scheme despite fears from within his own party that it was electoral suicide. Steve Norris, the former Tory transport minister who stood against Livingstone in both 2000 and 2004, was at the forefront of the opposition. He promised that on the morning of the introduction he would be with the crowds at the boundary of the charging zone. I had been called in by a local radio station to comment on the expected chaos resulting both from the confusion with the scheme and the expected demonstrations.

Norris’s protest turned out to be a lonely affair as barely a handful of protesters turned up while I was soon stood down in the studio as there was no story. Walking out into central at around 9 am was like entering one of those Wild West towns where everyone has fled as a pair of gunfighters prepared to shoot it out.

Cannily, Transport for London had chosen half term week knowing this was normally far quieter than school weeks, but nevertheless the impact was striking. Either through fear of the chaos or because they were reluctant to pay the £5 congestion charge, motorists had deserted the streets of central London. Of course traffic picked up somewhat as people got used to the idea of paying for access but the expected chaos, and indeed the fears about civil disobedience and protests never materialised.

Today the congestion charge no longer figures in political discourse in the capital. It is accepted in much the same way as parking charges. That is partly because it has very little impact. Few Londoners, except those with essential business, drive into the congestion zone which was briefly extended to cover parts of west London before Boris Johnson, elected in 2008 cut it back to its original size. But interestingly he did not scrap the whole congestion charge scheme because broadly it was popular and had helped cut congestion in the centre. Personally, despite being car owner, I have paid it once in those two decades when I was carrying a big suitcase for my daughter. Otherwise, like many Londoners, I would never consider driving into the city centre.

Even though Norris’s fears never materialised, the grounds for his opposition are worth recalling because they are being deployed again today both here in Ireland and in the UK against any attempt to impose restrictions or charges on car use. In fact, the Tory government in the UK have made countering the supposed ‘war on the motorist’ a central part of their political campaigning and have invested considerable resources and political capital in furthering it.

The new battlegrounds in the UK are low traffic neighbourhoods, 20 mph zones in urban areas and particular the ultra low emission zones , but the opponents’ arguments remain the same.  The basis of Norris’s opposition was that the scheme would displace traffic on to less affluent areas, that it unfairly impacted on poorer people and that the public transport system would not be able to cope. He also reckoned the technology was unworkable. In an article Norris wrote for the BBC as the launch approached, he said : So a degree of chaos is guaranteed before we start and the mayor will be running hard to catch up’.

In fact, the objection that a new tax would affect poorer people unfairly seems only to be trotted out by right wing politicians when it concerns motorists. This argument is never used about the squeeze on the National Health Service, library cuts, larger school classes, benefit increases below the wage of inflation or any other welfare measures.

The truth is that car ownership increases in line with income, and consequently charging motorists is a relatively progressive form of taxation especially when, as was the case in London, the money raised had to be spent on public transport. Yes a few people are adversely and disproportionately affected but that cannot be an excuse for inaction.

In one sense though, sadly Norris has been proved right. He concluded his article by saying ‘It is hard to see any other local authority committing collective suicide by apeing the London experience’. He was actually wrong about the ‘suicide’ since Livingstone went on to win the 2004 election against Norris comfortably but despite the success of the London charge, politicians in many towns and cities across the world have been reluctant to introduce a similar scheme because of fears of losing at the polls. In Edinburgh and Manchester, vocal opposition from local media together with the motoring lobby defeated schemes and even in Stockholm where a scheme was introduced before a vote, it was only narrowly retained when the poll was eventually held, despite the scheme’s success in reducing congestion.

The lesson is clear. Politicians need to be strong and firm in the face of opposition because ultimately the prize is an important one. Livingstone was and as a result triumphed. Towns and cities across the world which have been courageous enough to move away from car dominance in favour of supporting sustainable methods of transport have invariably prospered. One only has to look at the converse, the terrible decline of central areas in most United States cities where urban motorways, ring roads, widened boulevards and huge car parks have led to a carcentric culture that is fundamentally dysfunctional.

In the article on the BBC website which I wrote to counter Norris’s arguments, I said:

‘Rational explanations do not wash with the opponents because their subliminal argument is a much more fundamental and emotional one: that motorists should have the “right” to go anywhere without paying. That notion does not hold water. Drivers are restricted by all kinds of traffic rules and pay fuel and road taxes. Indeed, there is nowhere to park legally for free within the central zone covered by the charge’.

I concluded, correctly, ‘While the media coverage will highlight every blip in the system, the reality is the charge will make little difference to many Londoners. Most will cough up reluctantly, a few will forego their cars. It will be a small earthquake in London’. The same will undoubtedly apply in Ireland if any politicians prove brave enough to follow London’s example. It’s just a shame that the same debate is still taking place despite the evidence that only good will come out of making motorists pay for the congestion they cause.

The Irish Government’s transport strategy, unveiled last week, would give local authorities the power to introduce congestion charges, only for Transport Minister Eamon Ryan to say later the same day that such measures “wouldn’t be socially just” and that it would be wrong to try and “price drivers off the road”.

For a century or more, cars have been the key determinant of the design and planning of towns and cities across the world, causing untold damage both to the environment and people’s health. These all too minor measures represent the future as they are an attempt to rein back the dominance of a machine that should be at our service rather than ruling over us. While the 20th century was the century of the car, the current one must be the century of sustainable transport, and the congestion charge is but a small step towards it.




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