24 March 2021

Here’s one area where we should definitely aim to be ‘Singapore on Thames’

By Tom Spencer

Congestion is one of London’s biggest problems. Time lost when stuck in traffic rose by 14% between 2012 and 2014 alone. This led to an increase in pollution that today kills an estimated 9,400 people every year. The congestion charge that was introduced by Ken Livingstone in 2003 has been incredibly effective at helping to slow down these problems, but it hasn’t quite gone far enough. Regardless of who wins in May’s mayoral election, London’s next mayor would be wise to adopt Lib Dem candidate Luisa Porritt’s plan for road pricing.

Driving in London is currently taxed through a flat £15 congestion charge on cars driving within central London. This is not an especially bad policy. Indeed, it has allowed for congestion to fall by 30% and for average traffic speeds to increase by 21%. However, it doesn’t go far enough. Average speeds in the capital are still low, and the urgency of lowering pollution to help reach net zero grows daily.

What Luisa Porritt is offering goes further. By introducing road pricing, rather than taxing every vehicle at a flat rate, you ensure that it is the biggest polluters who pay the most. Those who drive more at the times of greatest demand cause the most harm. They pollute the most, and they contribute to the most injuries and crashes. It is only fair that these people should pay more than someone who makes a single short trip at times where the roads are empty.

This is not a completely theoretical policy. Singapore has been using it with great success since the 1970s. There, an electronic system is used whereby the relevant price of driving on a particular road is adjusted based on the demand. This means if traffic is particularly bad, then it will be more expensive to drive helping to reduce overall demand. Allowing the price to flex with traffic means drivers won’t ever be overcharged during times of low demand or under-charged during times of high demand. To borrow a phrase from the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, road pricing ensures that it is the polluters who pay.

As a result of this pricing system Singapore, unlike many developed cities, doesn’t really suffer from congestion.  Average speed during peak hours on arterial roads is as high as 18mph. That may not sound like much, but compared to the pitiful 7.1mph that central London averages, it’s Formula 1.

The gap is even clearer when you put it in practical terms: Suppose a person travels to work from Greenwich to Westminster everyday. That drive is just over six miles. Assuming one travels at central London’s average rush hour speed the entire way, it would take just over 50 minutes. At Singaporean speeds, it would take just 20 minutes!

This traffic does not just carry environmental costs, but economic costs as well. If you’re losing 30 minutes driving every journey due to congestion, that’s equivalent to 60 a day, or five hours every work week. Given the living wage in London is currently set at £10.85 an hour, that’s equivalent to an opportunity cost of £54.25 every week just from time lost while driving. This is not just a London problem, it’s a British one. Analytics firm INRIX found that congestion costs the British economy £6.9bn every year — that’s £894 per person.

This proposal has already been explored and recommended by the Transport Committee of the London Assembly. They found that as many as 63% of Londoner’s were likely to switch their driving habits to travel at less busy periods, 48% would switch to public transport and 32% would drive less overall. One would assume that people would not like to be forced to change their habits, but the evidence suggests the contrary. A survey by that same Transport Committee found that as many as half of Londoners would support road pricing, and just a fifth were opposed.

Approaching May’s election, transport and the environment will be key debates that will play a huge role in determining which candidate presents the best platform for London. By recommending road pricing, Luisa Porritt has done a lot to prove that candidate is her. Through enforcing road pricing you can properly ensure that it is the worst polluters who pay the most, helping to bring down pollution, bring up traffic speed, and increase productivity — and all in a way that is popular with the electorate. The other candidates would be smart to join Porritt in endorsing this policy.

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Tom Spencer is a Young Voices UK contributor and the chief organiser of the London Neoliberals. He can be found on Twitter @TomJackSpencer

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.