Interview: Centre for London on how road user charging could improve air quality

Motorists in London should be charged for every mile driven in a radical overhaul of the current Congestion Charge and Ultra-Low Emission Zone systems, says think tank Centre for London.

They say costs would vary according to vehicle emissions, local levels of congestion and pollution as well as how close they are to bus stops or tube stations – with some journeys not being charged at all if there no alternatives.

They’ve called the new system ‘City Move’ and say it could be integrated within London’s wider transport system via a new app, run by Transport for London (TfL).

AirQualityNews met Centre for London research manager Silviya Barrett at their offices last month to learn more about the idea.

The ULEZ has only just come in ⁠— why do you want to scrap it already?

I wouldn’t use the word scrap. It’s about the next stage of road user charging.

Before the extension of the ULEZ (in 2021) would be the ideal time. We think it makes sense. It’s much more targeted towards individual vehicle usage.

We think ULEZ is very much needed. It’s the right way to go in terms of incentivising the use of cleaner vehicles.

However, to reduce the use of polluting vehicles overall we think it should cover a wider area and it should also be more targeted — such as at certain times of the day or taking into account the different types of journey that can be taken.

How will road user charging affect businesses?

Businesses are bound to feel it more than private users because they drive more such as the logistics and services sector.

Our argument is a scheme like this will actually help ease traffic and will bring about efficiency savings for businesses. They then might be able to do more in a day and be stuck in traffic less.

The concept was created through workshops with experts, industry and user type representative groups. We wanted a concept that would appeal to the public and is desirable rather than just another charge..

What does TfL think of the report?

They were involved throughout and supplied the data for us. They are aware of all the findings and recommendations.

I think they are on board but it’s a political decision now. The Mayor has had the power to introduce road user charging since 2000 under the Local Transport Act.

I don’t think it would be any more unpopular or popular as the ULEZ but it’s perhaps more complicated.

It’s easier to understand a daily charge where you pay the same thing regardless of how much you drive and a distance-based charge is sometimes a bit more difficult to explain.

However, an app could make it much simpler.

The concept has a lot of backing. Pedestrian groups are in favour because of the impact it would have on car usage and quality of the public realm.

But also the likes of Uber and private hire companies support it because it would maybe nudge people to give up their car and use their services.

The boroughs have been difficult to reach because their concern is that residents might object. But we think if you present a case that shows it would be simpler and fairer, then the public will get on board.

Is Uber a good thing for London?

It depends whether you’re making the most of it for the needs of the population.

A distance-based charge would be able to mitigate the negative impacts in some ways.

It would incentivise drivers to get a cleaner vehicle but if you were charged for distance you’d be decentivised for cruising and perhaps demand would be different with a charge.

When Uber arrived and there was a significant reduction in fares for taxi journeys, then people responded with increasing custom for the app.

If there was an increase in fares then people might go in another direction.

It’s concerning people are taking Uber’s for short distances when they could just take the bus. Bus user decline in London is quite worrying.

Can you see a day when the centre of London is fully pedestrianised?

It’s such shame the proposals to pedestrianise Oxford Street have been put on hold.

That’s the direction we should be going.

People saw how good it was when the streets were closed for Extinction Rebellion protests.

Could road user charging be replicated across the UK?

We think so. Clean Air Zones are the obvious scenario where elements could be borrowed.

We’re aware a lot of CAZ cities are thinking about it from a basic daily charge perspective. So if it’s a small city CAZ a variable charge might not make sense.

The principle of charging buses, trucks and also private cars applies across all cities because private users are more able to switch to different vehicles.

If your purpose is not only to have cleaner vehicles but to reduce road usage then we think they should be considering this.

Read Centre for London’s report here – ‘Green Light: Next generation road user charging for a healthier, more liveable, London.’