London (along with Stockholm and Singapore) is one of the poster children for how a city should tackle congestion. In studies into congestion in cities around the world, London is consistently  held up as an exemplar. Recent studies in Vancouver, New York and Auckland have all referenced London. Academic research has also highlighted the success of the London congestion charge in reducing congestion.

This is fantastic, one of the world’s great cities has solved congestion and now it only remains for other cities to follow in its footsteps in order to get rid of congestion forever. However, London hasn’t solved congestion – far from it. In the last few weeks, TomTom and Inrix have published their global index of congestion in cities. London did not perform well, coming 25th (in Tom Tom’s index) and 7th (in Inrix’s) for the worst congestion globally and with the worst congestion of any Western European city in both studies. For anyone who has had to use the M25, the motorway that surrounds London, this is no surprise. How can London be both the poster child for solving congestion and have the worst congestion in Western Europe? What is going on?

There are two sides to answering this question – why is congestion in London so bad despite the congestion charge and why if congestion is so bad is it still held up as a poster child?

The first thing to understand about the London congestion charge is that it only applies to a very small proportion of London, approximately 1.3% (by land mass) of Greater London. Although this 1.3% has a disproportionate share of the London economy it does not cover other major economic areas of the city such as Canary Wharf. As a consequence, the proportion of vehicles in London that are affected by the congestion zone are also only a small proportion of all the vehicles in London, leaving plenty of room for congestion elsewhere.

The reason that the London congestion charge is perceived as successful is that numerous studies have researched the impact of the congestion charge in and around the zone and have concluded that it has reduced the traffic compared to what a ‘do nothing’ approach would have achieved. Given the relatively few examples of successful sustained congestion reduction strategies around the world, it is no surprise that London has attracted this reputation..

Unfortunately, what is hidden from this ‘success’ is that the London congestion zone as it applies today was always meant to be only the beginning. Congestion charging was expected to be so demonstrably successful that the political barriers to expanding it to a more comprehensive scheme across London would magically fall away. This has not been the case and the latest strategy from Transport for London (TfL) made it clear that there will be no development of the scheme anytime soon. In terms of reducing congestion, London has reached a dead end.

This dead end, begs the question, why is this not widely recognised and London put forward as a cautionary tale instead of a poster child. A few possibilities spring to mind:

  1. It is not in the interest of TfL or the Mayor of London to dispel the myth of London’s leadership in the congestion debate. As a consequence, this is kept out of the public arena.
  2. Research studies, academic discourse and reviews of road pricing schemes around the world do not typically account for the political dimension of policy reform.  As a consequence, their commentary invariably has an entrenched blind spot when it comes to understanding the innately political reasons as to why London has reached a dead end.
  3. Finally, there is the lack of any implemented alternative approaches around the world. Alternative approaches have been suggested. However, this requires a level of innovation that might increase the risks to decision makers. Better to stick with a ‘perceived’ successful approach.

So how can jurisdictions like Vancouver, New York and Auckland that are seriously considering congestion charging avoid the failures of London? Three things spring to mind:

  1. Recognise the limitations of the London system – it is far from a panacea.
  2. Do not use a London style approach as a stepping stone to more comprehensive reform in the future.
  3. Look for innovative approaches that avoid dead ends, provide realistic political pathways for adoption and minimise implementation risks.