Tuesday 15 July 2014

Time to double London's congestion charge

The American mapmaker Rand McNally launched their groundbreaking Places Rated Almanac in 1981 and it changed the whole argument about cities.

It coincided with research that showed the most attractive cities for investment were not, actually, the places with no regulations and tax breaks.  They were the places where the CEOs of companies wanted to live - and they wanted clean air, green space, theatres, good schools for their children and so on.

It marked the beginning of the Civics movement in the USA and it rescued cities like Pittsburgh, where - in the 1970s - the streetlights had to be kept on in daytime because of the polluted air.

The bottom line was this.  Cities which allowed themselves to get polluted because it was somehow a side-effect of thrusting economic success were completely deluded.  To succeed in the long-term, cities had to be good places to live.

So I find it pretty extraordinary that, three decades or more later, the neanderthals appear still to be in charge of London.

I'm not sure I believe the hype that the London air is the most polluted in the world - it would take a lot to beat some of the Far Eastern cities - but it is still pretty bad.

Especially in the last few weeks, when all my friends appear to have earned themselves sore throats and chest complaints for working in London.  As I wander around the centre of town, I am staggered that we have allowed almost permanent traffic jams to take up residence at key roads and junctions.

Why have London's bosses failed to learn the lessons?  It is partly a deeper malaise: the Department of Transport has shifted pro-rail, but they have failed to learn a more important lesson - that the key to cutting traffic is paradoxically to reduce, not increase, the space for cars.

Unlike many cities in the UK, London's transport users do have choices - most of them - and they will use them if that traffic becomes intolerable for them.  But that is a decision about time, not a decision about pollution.

But those choices mean that, unusually, there is a policy option that would help solve the problem and raise considerable sums of money.  It is time to double the Congestion Charge.

What are the arguments against?  That poorer people will be unable to drive in London.  They already can't - have you seen Westminster's parking charges?

That some people really need to drive across London.  Definitely, but give them discounts - and give them the road space to let them do it.

The future of London depends on it being green, clean, pleasant place to breathe.  Nobody will bring their children to live in a polluted hothouse.  Nor will the city thrive if its leaders suffer from British-Establishment-Disease (definition: the inability to make a difference; the habit of making occasional empty gestures towards problems).

But personally, I'm not waiting for a solution any longer.  I'm off.


james skinner said...

Good plain common sense! This is a commodity that seems to be increasingly scarce amongst policy makers.
Huge numbers of people have spent many many years trying to persuade Transport for London to divert buses and taxis away from Oxford Street so that it can be pedestrianised, with public transport provided by trams. TfL flatly refuses to act. The CEO of TfL is a dedicated bus man who will not allow trams, even though they are the obvious answer for big cities as their capacity can be increased to meet demand, they are popular, cheap and nonpolluting and can operate safely in pedestrian areas.
Raising Congestion charges is a very sensible proposal to reduce deaths from pollution. It would also encourage electric or bio-methane powered vehicles to be used more.

james skinner said...

London is in fact said to be the most polluted capital in the EU.