No respite for London congestion despite plans

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TfL has proposed to change London’s Congestion Charge in a bid to deal with the capital’s traffic. But in actual fact, the plans will do little to mitigate its effect, and will leave the coach and bus industry cold

TfL’s proposed changes to the Congestion Charge will deliver little respite

Transport for London’s (TfL) proposed changes to the capital’s Congestion Charge (CC) will not directly affect coach and bus operators. But do they give an inkling that the body may be about to take one of the industry’s top gripes about the city seriously?

The proposals are currently being consulted on. That process will close on 28 September, at which point Mayor Sadiq Khan will decide whether to implement them or to modify them.

If they go ahead, they will be introduced concurrently with the Ultra Low Emission Zone on 8 April 2019. Further revisions will follow in 2021 and 2025.

TfL is clear that the 100% CC discount for vehicles with nine or more seats will remain. To that, it proposes a charge for one of the road groups that is often blamed for much of central London’s congestion: The private hire vehicle (PHV). Currently, PHVs are exempt.

Successful or not?

TfL introduced the CC in 2003. It led to a 15% reduction in traffic volume and a 30% cut in congestion. But since then, and with other factors such as cycle lanes in play, average traffic speeds have slowly returned to where they were pre-CC.

That represents an added cost for the coach and bus operators active within the CC zone and congestion is one of the things that they often highlight as blighting their operations in London.

TfL says that thanks to the various exemptions, now only 50% of vehicles that enter the CC zone during charging hours are required to pay. But it’s not just to traffic speeds that changes to the CC are expected to deliver a benefit. Air quality will improve as a byproduct, it says. TfL has identified that the number of PHVs entering the CC zone has increased hugely over the life of the charge. That has counterbalanced the drop in the number of private cars entering.

There is no proposed change to black cabs’ exemption as they are viewed as part of the capital’s accessible public transport network. TfL data also suggests that their numbers have remained stable since the CC’s introduction.

Not a panacea

A report commissioned by TfL and prepared by Cambridge Economic Policy Associates (CEPA) predicts that if the PHV exemption to the CC is withdrawn, it will lead to an overall reduction in traffic in the zone during chargeable hours of just 1%.

Report: Imposition of the CC on private-hire taxis will have little impact

To put that into context, the volume of motorised traffic in central London has decreased by 22.4% since 2007-08. However, that has not translated to any useful benefit for the coach and bus industry. Operators continue to tear their hair out over congestion.

Additionally, the report predicts that many PHV operators will pass the proposed charge on to passengers, and that they will seek to linger in the central zone once it is paid. Passing it on will be easy; previously unpublished TfL data shows that 57% of all PHV entries during chargeable hours are attributable to app-based Uber,

Just as insignificant as the proposed removal of PHVs’ exemption is the replacement of the Ultra Low Emission Discount (ULED) with a Clean Vehicle Discount (CVD).

Although TfL makes no comment on an extension to other sectors later, the most notable proposed condition is that when CVD is introduced in April 2019, besides Euro 6 compliance, eligibility will mandate a 20km engine-off range if it is to apply to vehicles that are not otherwise exempt. CVD is planned to end entirely in 2025.

While that sounds positive, figures behind the ULED show otherwise. An Integrated Impact Assessment prepared by Mott MacDonald states that just 2,000 vehicles that are currently eligible for the ULED would be non-compliant for the CVD. Even if they were all removed from the zone without replacement, the impact on overall congestion would be zero.

A cynical plot?

TfL paints its proposed changes as a mechanism to reduce congestion and to improve air quality.

In reality, the two independent reports show that the changes will have a negligible impact. One notes TfL’s legal obligation to direct all funds raised via the CC into public transport; the body faces a deficit of almost £1bn in 2019, it has been reported.

So will the proposed changes have any benefit for the coach and bus industry? No. They leave TfL with lots of work still to do if it is to address the pox of congestion.

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routeone comment

TfL has a mountain to climb if it is to address congestion. And while it is something that only TfL can deal with, coach operators in the south-east are stakeholders by default, as are many in other parts of the country.

On one hand, the industry can consider itself fortunate not to have been part of the proposed changes, although April’s ULEZ is a big enough challenge in itself.

But what is interesting is the inclusion of a requirement for 20km of zero-emission capability under one of the exemptions. Will that later be expanded to PCVs? It remains to be seen, but the concept is now on TfL’s radar.

What’s clear is that in the short- to medium-term, congestion in London will remain as bad as ever.