Last month while much of London's media were taking a look at Boris' election bus, Darren Johnson AM was hosting a launch of a report he'd commissioned from Professor John Whitelegg and Phil Goodwin: Pay as you go: managing traffic impacts in a world-class city.
John Whitelegg opened by outlining some key issues: congestion, damage to the economy and air pollution that London has to address to achieve a better future as a world-class, healthy and socially-just city. The prognosis is pretty stark. London is the most congested city in the UK and in Europe with traffic delay costing £1.58 billion annually. According to Transport for London (TfL) estimates, £17 is lost for every hour of traffic delay with estimated costs ranging from £2-4 billion per annum and the wider costs on tourism and business logistics unquantified. London is slipping down the league of good places to live as other cities make themselves more attractive by cleaning up their air and tackling congestion.
Atkins reported in 2008, that the economic cost of congestion in London was £9 billion in 2005 and will be £20 billion by 2025. So why do drivers in Hamburg, Munich and Frankfurt waste less time in traffic than London drivers? London needs to be as good a place to live as Frankfurt, otherwise Frankfurt will take over as the financial centre.
Clearly more than 4000 deaths per annum due to air pollution is unacceptable, in 1952 when 4000 died in the Great Smog, politicians took action and in 1956 the Clean Air Act was introduced. In 2008 4000 deaths were attributable to air pollution and no one has acted. London is grade "F" for air pollution, with cities like Berlin, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Vienna and Zurich scoring significantly better.
Whitelegg reckons that we should learn from the existing congestion charge, scale it up to include the whole Greater London area, make it more high tech, increase the revenue ratio, deal with future growth in population and improve our economy, making London the world's best city. Wryly he suggested the existing congestion charge is too high, with much too much spent on the system. I sat there imagining the headlines "Greens commission report stating congestion charge too high - shock", but following through the case, he clearly has a point.
The current congestion charge is successful, but covers too small an area. If London's Mayor expects growth, the impacts of congestion and air pollution cannot be ignored. A Pay as you Drive system would give drivers the opportunity to change their behaviour to take advantage of traveling at cheaper times of day or on cheaper roads. There have been many reports on road pricing over the years, all have concluded that pay as you Drive would work. In 1964 Ruben Smeed thought Pay as You Drive would be best, but the technology just wasn't available to implement it. It was also the preferred choice of Eddington in a report in 2006.
The design criteria have not yet been specified, but Whitelegg was convincing in his description of a system piggy-backing on existing schemes, following interrogation of technical and ICT programmes elsewhere. His vision is of a system that charges by the kilometre, by the length of street travelled and by time of day providing both relief from congestion and an improvement in air quality. Key issues to be addressed would be guarantees of privacy and the protection of the interests of low-income groups, women, key workers, small businesses, shops and newsagents. There'd also need to be a clearly articulated walking, cycling, public transport and car-sharing strategy to deliver an increase in each of these modes. If these are all addressed then Pay as you Drive offers the holy grail of benefits to the economy, benefits to health and a reduction in carbon emissions.
The social justice case is clear. Low income groups use buses, have low levels of car ownership, yet are five times more likely to be killed on the roads than their wealthier neighbours. By reducing traffic volume and speed low income groups will be helped. He also showed the diagram from the Living Streets report Driven to Excess by Josh Hart showing a direct correlation between increased traffic levels and less social interaction between neighbours.
There is also a very strong revenue case for pay as you go driving. The current congestion charge has generated £2.182 billion in eight years. A London-wide pay as you go system could generate £1billion per annum to invest in public transport and walking and cycling projects.
Whitelegg concluded by saying that the time is right to address the economic damage caused by current levels of congestion and pollution to make London into a world-class city. It can be done through a pay as you go system. There are no other viable options on the table - all Londoners would benefit and he could not think of any group who would not benefit. He called on Darren Johnson to build both a political debate and a consensus for pay as you go driving in the capital.
The report has been peer reviewed by Phil Goodwin and Chris Nash as Whitelegg wrote it. Phil Goodwin spoke briefly and asked "Why now?" There is "always a reason why NOT now". He said there have been several reports into road pricing over the last fifty years, at least one per decade and described it as "the only policy instrument available that would pay for itself". All the road-pricing reports have said that road-pricing is do-able and do-able fairly. The political response has always been, "that sounds great for ten years time". Ten years in political speak is "not in this administration and not in the next one - so I don't need to deal with it now". Goodwin's message was that we have to make this an issue for NOW.
Eleanor Besley from Sustrans raised the idea of highway space allocation with one third for walking and cycling, one third for public transport and one third for cars and lorries. She also said that other countries fully enforce low speed limits specifically to encourage walking and cycling.
John Stuart an airport campaigner, felt that by tackling congestion with pay as you go driving, we'd obviate the need for airport expansion. He also felt that noise should be added to the case in relation to impacts on health from congestion. In his response, Whitelegg quoted Kushman and Wakefield on the relative economic performance of cities. London is not doing well and others are streaking ahead. He said we can choose not to charge for the economic costs of congestion (rising obesity, poor air quality etc) but if we choose not to charge, those costs don't disappear, they have to be met from elsewhere.
Gordon Telling from the Frieight Transport Association said he had "no philosophical difference with pay-as-you-go". He wanted to know if charges would be universal or differentiated and suggested that huge savings could be made using out of hours deliveries along with reductions in congestion and pollution. The 1984 lorry ban case was made on noise grounds, but deliveries between 1.00 am and 4.00 am could engender huge savings via logistics: in Germany logistics solutions have reduced lorry miles by 60%.
A questioner from London Travel Watch said that public acceptability was the elephant in the room. He went on to say "I'm signed up to this but good luck to you Greens". He then cited the "shocking" recent campaign against Westminster parking charges by the Evening Standard. Whitelegg suggested that aspirations and policy objectives for world-class city status should be clearly demonstrated, the options available inspected to clarify the case that the benefits are not deliverable without pay-as you-go driving. If it doesn't happen London will suffer.
Sian Berry from the Campaign for Better Transport asked if pay-as-you-go is compatible with the existing cordon-based Low Emissions Zones. Whitelegg said there was fundamental compatibility in that higher emitting vehicles would pay higher rates per km travelled. Pay-as you-go would replace the existing LEZ and would eliminate the issue of "grumpy residents finding themselves on the wrong side of a line on a map". The flexibility of the pay-as-you-go system allows people to choose how to avoid the charge - a nudge towards different behaviour and an awareness that "my car is not the only option".
Sian Berry also asked about using a cost benefit analysis (CBA) approach to making the case for pay-as-you-go. Phil Goodwin descibed the awkwardness of using CBA on road-pricing - it makes money and so the numbers look odd. He felt that a cost benefit analysis from the driver's perspective would show benefit. On the politics of pricing, he said it is an illusion that "all you need is consensus". rather he thought that stages are required for incremental implementation. At each stage theoretical benefit should be converted to local advantage so people are clear that many more benefit than lose.
John Whitelegg's last report for the Green Assembly members was into the viability of a cable car instead of a new fixed river crossing and that has already made its way from the drawing board to reality - due for completion shortly. If this latest report can make it into the real world so quickly, there may be hope yet that London can compete with other European cities for liveability.
Congratulations are due to Darren Johnson for commissioning this report and for realising that there is a constructive and achievable solution to the problems grappled with daily by Londoners. Let's hope that politicians from other parties show as much imagination and have the courage to acknowledge the multiple problems that our car dependent travel culture entail.