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Fewer Free Rides for Londoners

Fuel-efficient vehicle discounts for the London Congestion Charge might lower emissions, but not congestion. Julia Hawthornthwaite reports from London, England on the tighter requirements.

The transport department in the City of London, England, is about to get some criticism from drivers of fuel-efficient vehicles and motorcycles.

The transport department in the City of London, England, is about to get some criticism from drivers of fuel-efficient vehicles and motorcycles.

Last week, Transport for London (TfL) announced a proposed change to the London Congestion Charge discount for fuel-efficient vehicles. The Congestion Charge is a fee applied to drivers entering London’s city center. It was initiated in 2003 because the economic and environmental costs of congestion in London were extremely high.  

If TfL’s proposal is approved, the Greener Vehicles Discount will be replaced with the much more restrictive Ultra Low Emission Discount as of July 2013. But in anticipation of the flak they expect from drivers of the soon-to-be-excluded vehicles, the City is offering a “sunset period” of two years for drivers to prepare.  

Originally, vehicles that emitted less than 100g of carbon dioxide or less per km were exempt from the charge, and all other cars are charged 10 pounds a day (about $16 CDN) to enter the charging zone. The policy was designed to reward environmentally conscious car purchases and decrease CO2 emissions.

Ultimately, however, the exemption contradicted the main goal of the congestion charge, which is to decrease traffic in central London. Although it was a nice bonus for those who chose to “do their part” and buy fuel-efficient vehicles, it didn’t get to the heart of the policy objective.

Furthermore, there are now more cars on the market with emissions standards that meet the discount criteria, which allows more people to apply for the discount and drive within the charging zone.

TfL recognized this on their consultation page, stating: “Without a tightening of the emissions criteria, there could be a significant increase in the numbers of vehicles within the Congestion Charging zone. This would add to traffic congestion, increasing overall emissions of CO2 and air pollutants, which would undermine the purpose of the discount.”

It took the City nine years to correct this error, but it is a smart move nonetheless.

The original discount illustrates how decision makers are under constant pressure to please citizens and sometimes do so by imposing policies that are contrary to the central goal of an initiative. It is especially impressive that this is being done under the leadership of Mayor Boris Johnson, considering that the congestion charge was introduced by then-mayor Ken Livingstone.

It’s heartening (as an environmentalist) to see political leaders imposing policies that could potentially make them unpopular, but which serve their intended aims. I am intrigued to see the reaction from citizens.

Good on you, London.

Do you think your city would support a congestion charge? If they did, would you stop driving? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

The Policy Probe blog features posts from Julia Hawthornthwaite about environmental policy and European perspectives on environmental issues on the first Wednesday of each month.

Julia is a graduate from the University of Waterloo’s Environment and Resource Studies program, and is currently pursuing a Master’s of Environmental Policy and Regulation at the London School of Economics in London, England. 

Julia is passionate about understanding the needs of business, NGOs, and government in order to help to make environmental issues a priority and create impactful change. She is currently researching Ontario’s low-carbon economy and working as a Policy Analyst at the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity, and lives in Toronto. Julia attended the COP21 Conference with an international liberal youth organization. She tweets at @jrhawthorn.