February 12, 2020

What will happen to traffic with a congestion charge?

It will probably get worse.

From The Guardian:

London has achieved the impossible by eradicating the private car – and still having desperate traffic congestion,” says Prof Tony Travers, the director of LSE London, a research centre at the London School of Economics that explores the city’s economic and social concerns. “People keep saying we need to get the cars off the road. In central London, there aren’t any.” …

London brought in (a congestion charge) 17 years ago. … The number of cars in the City of London fell 15% either side of the introduction in 2003 of the congestion charge – allied since April 2019 with an ultra-low emission zone that more than doubles the daily charge for older diesel cars to £24. The city is also blessed with quicker, cheaper public transport alternatives. …

So why is traffic moving more slowly than ever?  Among most analysts, there is consensus on two underlying reasons: more vans and more Ubers. But in case we should feel righteously smug, Travers adds a list of contributors to the gridlock: “Cycle lanes, in some places, are bad. Ubiquitous four-way pedestrian crossing. Wider pavements. Any one of those makes perfect sense individually. But the buses are completely screwed.”

The bus easily outstrips the tube and rail as the main mode of transport for Londoners – even more so among disabled people, those with mobility problems and the poorest residents. Frozen prices, plus the introduction in 2016 of the hopper fare, which allows unlimited journeys within one hour for the cost of one trip, have made buses even cheaper under the current mayor, Sadiq Khan. However, the network has shrunk and patronage has declined in the past four years….

… private car trips make up only 37% of journeys, compared with 50% in 2003, according to Christina Calderato, the head of transport strategy and planning at Transport for London. “The key context is that the population is growing. London has grown by almost a million people in the past 10 years. All those people, even if they’re not travelling by car, still have to have their homes serviced – and receive deliveries.”

The fastest multiplying element of traffic everywhere is the light commercial vehicle – better known as the delivery van. Van journeys have shot up by 25% in the past decade in Britain, as online shopping has fuelled what Travers calls “the wild west of deliveries”.  …

If Amazon and co is one villain of congestion, another is Uber and its imitators. After the ride-hailing app reached London in 2013, the number of licensed private-hire vehicles surged, from 49,800 to 87,400 by 2017.

Their numbers far outstrip the 21,000 black cabs in London, but without the dedicated ranks where traditional taxis can stop. The upshot is that many drivers simply circle and wait for customers, creating traffic that doesn’t yet know where it is going. According to Calderato, by early 2019, “about 28% of them were empty”. …

Cycle lanes are also an uncomfortable topic. The construction of cycle superhighways in 2015 and 2016, in particular, coincided with buses almost grinding to a halt. While Brown backs cycling, he says: “In the end, you’ve taken road space away from buses. We’ve accommodated.”…

… as Travers says: “The truth is that almost everyone using the streets – cabs, buses, pedestrians and cyclists – has a sense of entitlement.” …

So what can be done? Financial deterrents work: a change of rules last April, to make private-hire vehicles liable for the congestion charge, cut the numbers circulating by about 40%, says Calderato; the concurrent introduction of the ultra-low emission zone saw overall traffic dip by up to 9%, according to early estimates. Extending the boundary of the zone to the north and south circular roads in 2021 is likely to increase this effect.

But perhaps the ambition to eradicate congestion is doomed. “London has very limited street space, and a lot of demand for that space,” says Calderato.


Full article here.




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  1. A daily flat fee induces more driving, once in the zone. Any fee must be by km, or choke point. The more you drive the more you pay. Far higher of course for a delivery van than a light weight car. Up the fees until the traffic flows.

    Linking to Brexit: control of immigration was THE key issue, not the economy. As such, of course if a city grows so does traffic. At some point people have had enough.

    A flat bus fee is a good idea but when low volume bike lanes take away space from high volume bus lanes then one needs to re-evaluate, just like today on SW Marine Drive from Granville to UBC. Very few bikes but massive car, bus and truck traffic. A 3-lane road with a counterflow lane would have been the better choice here. Tolled, of course, per block.

  2. An inverse Moore’s Law – unreservedly a good thing. Every decrease in traffic volumes (and central London’s was only 15%, let’s not get carried away with it “disappearing”) will be immediately countered by a subsequent decrease in vehicle-bearing capacity. Why maintain four lanes solely for cars if half (or 15%) of a corridor’s volume disappears? The result is – and should be – the same overall delay factor to private vehicles.

    Once again, people who report on traffic simply can’t imagine the world any other way. The point of congestion pricing is not to make it easier for others to drive. The point is to make mobility more equitable for everyone. Let’s stop bemoaning the plight of the poor motorist and focus on how much BETTER mobility is for the majority of London residents who do not choose to travel by motor vehicle. How much less congestion do pedestrians and cyclists experience every day with more routes and priority available to them now than 20 years ago? That is the story, not how pricing screwed drivers out of their open-road birthright.

    Even for a lefty rag like the Guardian, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of motordom.

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  3. London has a surface congestion problem? Try taking the Tube on any workday rush hour. I am in awe at how massive rivers of humanity continuously flood station platforms and then be completely swept up every minute or 90 seconds by 150 m long trains. It may not be the most enjoyable experience, but most trips across the inner two transit zones (virtually all of central London) are under 10 minutes in length, transfers excepted. Try accomplishing that by Uber, cab, red bus, private limousine or bike at any daytime hour. Every Tube line is equivalent to probably 14 lanes of freeway traffic on average. In terms of transport, it is the centre of the universe.

    London without the Underground would die.

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