Jun 10, 2019
“There’s an inevitability about [congestion charging],” the Commissioner of Transport for London told me on a metro ride on June 10. Mike Brown added that “it’ll come” even to those cities run by politicians who fear they would be slung out on their ears for even broaching such an idea.
“It wasn’t popular in London beforehand, either,” he pointed out. London introduced its congestion charge 16 years ago, with much of the resulting revenue spent on improving transit services.
Sweden’s capital Stockholm followed suit in 2007, and it was on Stockholm’s metro that I talked with Brown.
We–along with 15,000 others–were attending the UITP Global Public Transport Summit, organized every two years by the Union Internationale des Transports Publics (UITP).
UITP Secretary General Mohamed Mezghani with a stencil promoting his organization’s Global Public Transport Summit.
In a conference room on the UITP booth at the summit’s entrance the organization’s Mohamed Mezghani told me: “We are in favor of congestion charging, and our [1,700] members are in favor of congestion charging.”
The UITP’s Secretary General qualified that assertion:
The condition is that the revenues generated are also partly used to develop public transport because, if we restrict the use of cars, we have to offer an alternative. And the alternative is good public transport systems, and cycle lanes, and so on.”
We are not fighting against the ownership of cars; we are fighting against the use of cars. We are fighting against those people using cars for short distances. We have to increase awareness about the damage caused by this kind of car use.”
And don’t think that electrification is the answer: “Having one person per car is not sustainable, even if these cars are electric cars,” warned Mezghani.
According to an earlier UTIP briefing, investment spent on public transport–including investment raised by motorists through congestion charging–“sparks a chain reaction in economic activity up to three or four times the initial investment, enabling and promoting urban densification and greater urban productivity.”
The briefing continued: “While large-scale public transport investment projects are undoubtedly expensive, they are significantly less expensive than the direct cost of congestion, which can seriously harm [urban] competitiveness, affecting travel time reliability and business productivity.”
Transport planners know this, but congestion charging is a no-go area for many politicians.
“I wouldn’t like to be in the shoes of decision-makers,” Rafael Cuesta told me from the UITP’s press conference room. Cuesta has been Transport for Greater Manchester’s Head of Innovation since 2014.
Overseeing transport in Greater Manchester is a directly elected “metro” Mayor, a devolved position created by the U.K. parliament in 2017. Mayor Andy Burnham is unlikely to propose a congestion charge for Greater Manchester, partly because a 2008 referendum decided against such a scheme.
“[Manchester] tried,” said Cuesta of this rejection. “It wasn’t popular.”
Instead, he said, the city has since introduced clean-air zones.
“This isn’t congestion charging, but it limits the type of vehicles that can come in.”
Restricting car use through road usage charging isn’t on Cuesta’s radar:
I don’t think Manchester and other big cities in the UK are ready for [congestion charging] yet. We need to bring everybody together. Congestion pricing can be divisive, and a hard decision for politicians to take.”