01 September 2008

Reforming the congestion charge

Followers of this blog will know that I have a minor obsession with the workings of London's congestion charge regime. Recently, I have had the relatively pain free experience of moving my resident's discount over to a new car (although there seemed to be no practical way of not getting charged for at least one of the cars on the change over day itself, which seemed a bit unfair), so am feeling relatively well disposed to the process side of the charge, even though I remain opposed to it in principle.

You can therefore imagine my excitement when I saw today that our great mayor, Boris, has started the consultation exercise about the reform of the western zone (press release here). Not that I mind that the leaflet is written in turgid civil service prose, rather than in a more elegant style befitting Boris, but I am sorry to see that the options for reform are so unimaginative.

They are:

1. Introducing payment accounts (applying to the whole zone).
2. Introduce a free period for the Western zone between 11am and 2pm.
3. Increase the resident's discount to 100%.

Item 1 (payment accounts) is a no brainer, was floated during the mayoral elections, and not really anything to do with the Western zone (although no doubt Boris agrees, but is slipping this idea in so he can make the reform and have it covered by this consultation).

Item 2 (free period) is no doubt a sop to businesses and residents who are annoyed by the cost of the zone being passed onto them by their own business visitors. However, it would make the system fiendishly complicated and raises the spectre of cars queuing up outside the zone just before 11am, then racing around to get out by 2pm. In any case, lunchtime is just a busy as any other time (certainly in the centre of town) and the 3 hour window proposed would not be enough time for the delivery drivers, plumbers, builders and others who need to travel by car or van to complete their business.

Item 3 (100% discount), would be nice - especially for those residents who are at work all day and rarely drive their car during the charging hours, but at most represents a £200 tax cut. It does not really address the issues caused by the zone covering such a large residential area.

My main gripe with the zone is that if you live in the zone (as I do, by a matter of metres), it is very annoying that visitors (whether friends, family or tradesmen) have to pay £8 to drive to your house in the day, regardless of how long they wish to stay in the zone. In the case of tradesmen, invariably they seek to pass this cost onto you (along with parking). Given I am trying to move out of the zone, and will lose the discount, I am equally conscious of the unfairness of having to pay £8 per day simply for wanting to visit some shops or other businesses just within the zone, when it is free to drive to those just outside. I also think it is mad that by living in the western zone, your resident's discount applies to the whole zone.

So here are a few of my ideas:

1. Cut the rate in the west: down to £2 or £3 per day. This would be an incentive for some drivers to avoid it (if they can), but not a huge penalty on those who really need to go in.

2. Resident's vouchers: Allow residents to pay the charge (at a nominal rate, say £1 per day) for one "guest" vehicle per day. Limits could be imposed (i.e. max number of days in total or per guest) or intelligent monitoring to prevent abuse and "congestion arbitrage".

3. A bigger, more flexible buffer: As well as cutting the discount to residents in the western zone for the original, central zone, I would introduce a series of "neighbour zones" so that residents within a mile or so of the western zone would get a hefty (e.g. 75%) discount, radiating outwards for several miles in stages until you got to a much lower discount. This would soften the blow on businesses as their local trade would not be so penalised.

4. A measured approach: if users can have payment accounts, why not allow them to pay by the amount of time spent in the zone, say £1 per hour up to a maximum of £8? This can easily be measured by using the current equipment as entry and departure from the zone is carefully monitored. Surely it is far fairer that a driver who nips into the zone for a few minutes is charged less than someone who spends the day (and make it so a 10 minute trip in the zone is free, so that "accidental" visitors are not penalised). This would also allow for the abolition of the free routes through the zone.

If I think of any more, I will put them up here, but in the meantime, I will try submitting them through the online consultation engine.

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