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Wednesday, 19 February, 2003, 10:47 GMT
Congestion charge: Will it work?
Road shows congestion charge sign

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  • Click here to read the transcript

    Motorists travelling into central London face a 5 daily charge, in a landmark scheme being watched by cities around the UK.

    The new scheme will apply between 7am and 6.30pm, Monday to Friday, excluding public holidays.

    London's mayor, Ken Livingstone hopes the charge will cut congestion by up to 15% and raise at least 130m a year which, by law, will have to go back into the capital's public transport system.

    However, there are fears that London's existing public transport system won't be able to cope with extra passengers as people leave their cars at home.

    What do you think of congestion charging? Will it work? Should similar schemes be introduced across the UK?

    Professor David Begg from the Commission for Integrated Transport which advises on transport policy, and anti-congestion charging campaigner Joanne Cohen who launched the Sod-U-Ken website, answered your questions.


  • Transcript:


    Newshost:

    Hello and welcome to this BBC News Interactive Forum, I'm Susannah Reid.

    The world's biggest congestion charging scheme has begun in London. Motorists now have to pay 5 a day to drive into the centre of the capital. The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, says the charge is necessary to ease gridlock in the city where average traffic speeds can be as low as 10 miles an hour.

    You've been sending us your questions. Will congestion charging work? Will it be introduced around the country? In our Westminster studio is Professor David Begg, who is chairman of the Commission for Integrated Transport, which advises the Government on transport policy. And with me in the studio is Joanne Cohen, who is against the congestion charge and has set up a website - charmingly called - Sod-U-Ken. Thank you both very much indeed for joining us to answer your questions.

    Professor David Begg, can I put the first question to you. Andy Smith, London, England: Given the absolutely appalling state of London's public transport, how can Transport for London dare to impose yet another tax on London's commuters?


    Professor David Begg:

    There's no doubt that the over ground rail network and the underground network is going to be tested - and not really this week. I think next week will be more revealing when the schoolchildren come back from holiday because not only does the traffic go down when the schools are on holiday but you'd expect there to be some fall in demand for public transport.

    However, what I would say, is that we're expecting around 20,000 people to switch from private car to public transport during the peak hour. And of that 20,000, 15,000 of them should switch to the bus network. There's a lot of capacity on London's bus network to cope with people who are leaving their cars at home.


    Newshost:

    Joanne are you confident that there are going to be enough buses, trains and tubes put on to cope with all the people who might want to use them now that the congestion charge is in effect?


    Joanne Cohen:

    Well, we know for a start there are not enough tubes - we all know the problem on the tube and the buses during rush hour are definitely overloaded - there's not doubt about that. During the rest of the day, buses in central London, there doesn't seem to be a problem. But what about the buses that service more suburban areas? Anybody who travels into London using London Transport knows there is a problem.


    Newshost:

    Professor Begg what do you say to that? That there just simply isn't enough backup.


    Professor David Begg:

    There is substantial capacity on the bus network. I think that that will be tested but there'll be sufficient seats, I think, for most people. What we have to appreciate is that there is not an alternative strategy been put forward to cut traffic congestion. London's congestion will head towards Bangkok levels of congestion within 10 years - that's average traffic speed during the peak of two-and-a-half miles per hour. It's not in anyone's interest - not the economy's, not Londoners and not the environment's.

    It's interesting but the opinion polls are holding up quite well, despite negative publicity in the press. And the reason why the majority of Londoners are still in favour of congestion charging is because they're fed-up with congestion. I'd like to set up an anti-congestion campaign.


    Newshost:

    Joanne Cohen, you run the Anti-congestion charging campaign. Malcolm, Durham, England asks: Why not borrow money against the projected revenues for about five years and plough that straight into extra public transport now? Once people see what can be done (easy transport, no congestion), then they might be more appreciative.

    Would you be more appreciative if that money went in immediately, rather than over the longer term?


    Joanne Cohen:

    Absolutely. Professor Begg is a professor of economics so the actual detail of the financing for such a proposal is not for me to comment on. But Ken Livingstone, in his manifesto, did actually point out that the ideal situation would be to persuade drivers out of their cars by providing effective and safe public transport.

    The London driver is not stupid. They don't take their cars into London because they want to - they take their cars into London because they have to. If there was an effective alternative, people would be delighted to use it. Parking is expensive. We all know there is a problem with congestion. If we could have cheap, effective public transport, I'm sure a lot of people would use it.


    Newshost:

    David, Eileen Shaw from London says: How long do you think it will be for any profits from these charges to be ploughed back into public transport?

    When are going to start to see the improvements directly as a result of the 5 charge being levied?


    Professor David Begg:

    In this year's budget from Transport for London we should actually see 80 million going back into bus services and 20 million going back into improve road safety.

    But that earlier e-mail, I thought, was an interesting one which I would support. Transport for London has been given the ability to borrow in advance of these revenue streams coming in so that we can see much more immediate improvements to public transport. I think Transport for London though would have a problem getting permission from the Treasury - so that's one that should be addressed to them really.


    Newshost:

    Do you know if they've actually tried to do that?


    Professor David Begg:

    Oh yes and local authorities up and down the country have tried to make sure that they can borrow in advance of the revenue stream. That would be a sensible way to proceed because it would allow you to make the dramatic change to public transport in advance of the charge coming in that a lot of people are calling for.


    Newshost:

    Glenn Jagger, London UK: Many commuters pay more than 5 for a daily return ticket on London Underground or even on the trains. Why has the congestion charge been set so low? Will it really deter people from driving into the City?


    Professor David Begg:

    Yes, it's interesting. Transport professionals like me would be urging the Mayor to set the charge at a higher level but Ken Livingstone has got to make sure that he's carrying public opinion as best he can, so he's made a judgement that the 5 charge will deter sufficient people.

    It's interesting looking at the early traffic figures from Transport for London - they're saying that traffic is down 25%. Now about 14% of that would be because the schools are on holiday, so it looks as though the 5 charge has cut traffic by 11 - 15%.

    My own view is that it looks much quieter. And I don't know if any of your viewers have been around central London today but my own subjective view is that traffic has fallen by more than the figure that Transport for London are claiming.


    Newshost:

    Yes, we've had a look at our traffic cameras throughout the morning. Certainly Joanne it looks clearer doesn't it?


    Joanne Cohen:

    Well, it does look clearer - there's not doubt about it. Obviously there's the issue of school holidays. One other issue that people haven't taken into account is that there has been a lot of publicity over the last few days that there's going to be riots and that there are going to be demonstrations. I've been asked by countless radio stations about this. And in fact anybody who lives in London knows that the minute there's demonstration in London, the traffic just goes dead because people avoid coming in. On Saturday there was a massive demonstration - there was no traffic in London. Whereas Saturday is a terrible day, especially in the western part of the zone for congestion. So that could be one of the factors - people are just staying away.


    Newshost:

    David, clearly lots of people have been forced out of their cars onto public transport today specifically. We've got an e-mail just come in from Y, Reid here in London: Did Ken Livingstone think about the already overcrowded tubes and buses?

    I know you've touched on the problem of public transport and this is critical because Y, Reid goes on to say: Why was I standing for 10 stops very early in the morning? Couldn't get a seat. Clearly public transport already under intense pressure.


    Professor David Begg:

    Yes and I think we have to concede that that's true for the over ground rail network and also the underground network. It's difficult to increase capacity in the short-term for the rail network - it takes some time to get that extra capacity in. The judgement that the Mayor has had to make - is does he wait up to 10 years before we see a serious increase in rail capacity and over that period just allow London's congestion to grow.

    It's interesting but it's been London First, who speak for the London business community, who've been urging the Mayor to introduce congestion charging as quickly as possible because it's costing their members so much money.


    Newshost:

    Elizabeth Dancaster, Chipping Campden England: Having just moved out of London, my thoughts are with nurses and other essential low-paid workers who have to use a car for practical reasons taking children to school before work who work in the zone - 5 a day = 25 a week - how can a nurse afford this? Are there plans to have categories of worker who are exempt from charges?

    David, first just remind us who are the exempt categories if you can and then we'll discuss the charge.


    Professor David Begg:

    The Mayor has decided to make a number of public sector workers exempt from the charge and this has caused some controversy because some of his transport advisers think he's gone too far on that.

    But there are a whole range of people who've been made exempt. A nurse is exempt or someone who is going about central London on medical business - a doctor for example would be exempt from paying the charge.

    One of the changes I would expect to see happen - those people who do find the 5 charge to be prohibitive - one of the first changes I would expect is for car occupancy rates to start to rise. Eight out of 10 cars in central London, there's only one person in them. So if driving by car starts to become expensive, you'd expect to see those people who can share their cars to start to do so and for car occupancy rates to rise. That's a good thing because that allows us to make much more efficient use of road space.


    Newshost:

    Joanne is that something that you've been advocating - car shares, car pools?


    Joanne Cohen:

    Yes - as a school-run mother, I've been doing it for years. The question about key workers is a question of defining key workers. In a town like London we need telecom engineers, we need plumbers, we need electricians. As a businesswoman, I need these people to come and help me keep my business going if something goes wrong. Where do we draw the line? How do we define key workers? Essentially everybody who works in London is a key worker because they help the economy and the wheels of the economy turn.


    Newshost:

    But presumably economically David, if the categories of exemption become too broad, it just becomes financial unviable does it?


    Professor David Begg:

    And difficult to enforce. But Joanne's raised an interesting point there - what about the tradesmen who need to be in central London - the electrician, the joiner and the plumber. One thing to watch for here is what happens to their productivity.

    I've already had some e-mails today from courier companies who are saying they're actually in favour of the congestion charging scheme because they're able to be much more productive. They're vans are spending less time sitting gridlocked and more time actually delivering. So I'd be interested to find out what happens to these tradesmen who need to be in central London. Are they actually going to be spending more time doing their work and less time in traffic jams? That would be one way to monitor how effective the scheme is.


    Joanne Cohen:

    Can I just answer that. As a businesswoman, I'm beginning to see the effect of that. Many tradesmen are going to pass this charge onto the customer effectively and I've already received letters from suppliers we use - and we're not even in the zone and they're not in the zone either - saying they have to pass on the cost of the charge to their customers, i.e. myself. So then you get into a situation of inflation and how do you judge that if one tradesman goes into the zone for one job, he's not going to demand 5 from all his customers within the zone.


    Newshost:

    David, perhaps there should be some rules about who can pass on the 5 charge to the customer. Let me put an e-mail to you from Laurence Julius, London: Will Ken do anything to stop black cabs ripping off visitors from outside the UK? I had a visitor today who was charged a 5 congestion charge supplement. Is that allowed?


    Professor David Begg:

    No it's wrong. If that happens, get a note of the driver's licence plate and pass on that information. That shouldn't be happening and I just hope it's an isolated incident.

    But just to go back to that point about tradesmen actually passing on the charge. What they're doing at present is passing on the congestion cost. And that's why London First, who represent the business community, are saying the cost of congestion is crippling their members. And because their members are spending so long in traffic jams, that's increasing the cost to goods in central London. That's why I make that point. Will this reduction in congestion, will that outweigh the 5 charge - that's something we're going to have to monitor.


    Joanne Cohen:

    If David is right why am I getting letters saying that I will be paying more rather than less because if they are more productive, they are more cost-effective, my costs should be coming down as a consumer.


    Professor David Begg:

    I think they don't believe yet that congestion will fall. I think they think they've just got a 5 charge - the media have been pretty one-sided on this, especially some of the tabloids. They've just talked about extra charging road users, they haven't focused on the benefits. Today in London, we're seeing huge benefits. London streets are flowing better than they have done for decades. That means that these delivery vehicles and tradesmen will be getting around central London a lot quicker and congestion costs are plummeting.


    Newshost:

    Shelly Smith, London says: This morning I got into work half-an-hour early, even though I left at the same time I generally do. Congestion charging obviously works.

    But Joanne, lets go back to this other point - it is of course half-term and it's not a typical day.


    Joanne Cohen:

    Well exactly. First of all it's half-term and secondly I live right on the edge of the zone - about a mile away from Marble Arch which is a traditional point for demonstrations and anybody who lives in my area or anywhere near Hyde Park knows that the minute there is a demonstration, traffic just disappears from the road - this is normally at weekends. So perhaps businesses and the authorities aren't so aware of it but residents tend to be, and given the media, as David Begg says, has been hyping this to such an extreme - Ken Livingstone himself used the word "bloody". I do think that the real judge of the scheme is going to be over the next couple of days, if not the next few weeks.


    Newshost:

    Elaine Brownley, Mansfield, England: Looking at the CCTV on the news today, there was no congestion as this is half term week. But shouldn't we be concentrating on an efficient school bus system instead? Get 45 children on a bus instead of 45 children in 45 individual cars.


    Professor David Begg:

    Yes and there are a number of schemes across Britain where we've got the yellow American school bus being introduced. But again I think we have to be clear, one of the reasons why bus transport - whether it's school buses or the normal bus services - it's not attractive because they're held up far too much in traffic jams. So you can actually reduce the volume of cars in central London, it makes the bus system quicker and much more attractive and a lot more efficient.


    Joanne Cohen:

    I've heard this argument about the congestion holding the buses up. We have bus lanes in central London - the bus lanes have no congestion, other than other buses and taxes. So I don't understand why buses should be held up by congestion - it doesn't make any sense.


    Professor David Begg:

    It because we don't have enough bus lanes. There are a number of boroughs in London that have not been prepared to be brave and introduce them.

    What we have to start doing in the cities is concentrating on people-flows rather than vehicle-flows. One bus can move as many people as 20 cars and only takes up three times the amount of road space. So buses are very, very efficient way of getting people around our cities and certainly until we increase the capacity and get the investment into our underground and heavy rail network, we're going to be very, very dependent on bus transport. My concern is that there's just not enough support for bus service. The people who write the media columns and editorials - they're never really interested in bus passengers but I'll tell you, buses are the lifeblood of cities like London.


    Joanne Cohen:

    I use buses - I always have done. I chose to live where I live because there's a very good bus service. About a year ago, Ken Livingstone introduced these carnets of six bus tickets - it's taken me about a year to work out where to find one and buy one. It makes your journey 70p instead of 1. When they were introduced they were little ads on the buses themselves. Now when he's introduced 300 buses, there are big ads all over the press. When I ask at the Tube station to buy some - they didn't know anything about it. I asked the bus driver where to buy them - he didn't know where to buy them.


    Newshost:

    Let me put some more e-mails to you. Stephen in Lanarkshire asks: Why not use licence numbers to charge more for large more expensive cars and less for small cheaper cars and perhaps ones which don't pollute so much. Do the panel agree with that?


    Professor David Begg:

    The main purpose of congestion charges is to reduce the volume of cars and cut congestion. The main focus is not to make the cars cleaner. Although the Mayor has decided to give exemption to cleaner cars and there's a big increase in demand for cars which don't pollute as much. Again Transport for London is not making any claims about there being a reduction in pollution - perhaps they're wise to be cautious on that. My own view is the congestion charging will cut pollution in central London as well as congestion.


    Newshost:

    Jane Johnson, Birmingham UK: If you get into London before 7am, can you avoid the 5 congestion charge even if you leave to area before 6.30pm?


    Joanne Cohen:

    No. The minute you drive in central London between the hours of 7 am and 6.30 pm., you are liable for a charge.


    Newshost:

    Iain Cooke, Redditch, UK: What if I pay in advance for my car to go to London and in the morning my wife takes my car to work and leaves me with her car which I haven't paid for. Do I end up paying twice? Can I get a refund? How easy is it to phone up and transfer a payment?

    For slightly complicated questions like that, is it clear what people have to do?


    Professor David Begg:

    Probably not. But it should be possible for them to phone up Transport for London and make that change and I hope that they're able to do that very, very quickly.


    Newshost:

    John Mottershaw, Nottingham, UK: If I have to drive into London for a business meeting, how do I go about paying for this? I have had no information or warning as an outsider to London. What is the procedure?


    Joanne Cohen:

    Well I presume the procedure is go to the website and find out. This has been also another problem. I've come across people from other cities who come into London maybe one or twice a month and had no idea of the congestion charge - they had no idea what this was all about - it came as a shock. And obviously there's a danger that people who do come into London on a relatively regular basis but not that frequently from the different cities would be caught and would be accidentally fined.


    Newshost:

    Thank you both very much indeed. I'm afraid that's all we have time for. My thanks to both our guests and to you for all your e-mails and comments. Goodbye.

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