The London congestion charge is a fee charged on most motor vehicles operating within the Congestion Charge Zone (CCZ) in Central London between 07:00 and 18:00 Mondays to Fridays. It is not charged on weekends, public holidays or between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day (inclusive). The charge was introduced on 17 February 2003. The London charge zone remains as one of the largest congestion charge zones in the world, despite the cancellation of the Western Extension which operated between February 2007 and January 2011. The charge aims to reduce high traffic flow in the central area and raise investment funds for London’s transport system. The standard charge is £11.50 for each day, for each non-exempt vehicle that travels within the zone, with a penalty of between £65 and £195 levied for non-payment. Enforcement is primarily based on automatic number plate recognition (ANPR). Transport for London (TfL) is responsible for the charge which has been operated by IBM since 1 November 2009. During the first ten years since the introduction of the scheme, gross revenue reached about £2.6 billion up to the end of December 2013. From 2003 to 2013, about £1.2 billion (46%) of net revenue has been invested in public transport, road and bridge improvement and walking and cycling schemes. Of these, a total of £960 million was invested on improvements to the bus network.
In 2013, ten years after its implementation in 2003, TfL reported that the congestion charging scheme resulted in a 10% reduction in traffic volumes from baseline conditions, and an overall reduction of 11% in vehicle kilometres in London between 2000 and 2012. Despite these gains, traffic speeds have also been getting progressively slower over the past decade, particularly in central London. TfL explains that the historic decline in traffic speeds is most likely due to interventions that have reduced the effective capacity of the road network to improve the urban environment, increase road safety and prioritise public transport, pedestrian and cycle traffic, as well as an increase in road works by utilities and general development activity since 2006. TfL concludes that while levels of congestion in central London are close to pre-charging levels, the effectiveness of the congestion charge in reducing traffic volumes means that conditions would be worse without the Congestion Charging scheme.
The current congestion charge zone covers the area within the London Inner Ring Road which includes both the City of London, which is the main financial district, and also the West End, which is London’s primary commercial and entertainment centre. Although primarily a commercial area, there are also 136,000 residents, out of a total Greater London population of almost 9,000,000. There is little heavy industry within the zone.
Starting at the northernmost point and moving clockwise, the major roads defining the boundary are Pentonville Road, City Road, Old Street, Commercial Street, Mansell Street, Tower Bridge Road,New Kent Road, Elephant and Castle, Kennington Lane, Vauxhall Bridge Road, Park Lane, Edgware Road, Marylebone Road and Euston Road (other roads fill the small gaps between these roads). Signs were erected and symbols painted on the road to help drivers recognise the congestion charge area.
The Western Extension, introduced in February 2007 and removed on 4 January 2011, includes areas surrounded by the following roads starting from the north-westernmost point: Scrubs Lane, Harrow Road, Westway (part of the A40), Park Lane, Vauxhall Bridge Road, Grosvenor Road, Chelsea Embankment, Earl’s Court Road and part of the West Cross Route (A3320), but the Westway itself was not part of the zone.
In January 2013 Transport for London opened a public consultation to increase the standard charge 15% by mid 2014, from £10 per day to £11.50 if paid in advance or on the day. The increase was expected to generate an estimated £84 million of additional revenue by the end of 2017/18. The consultation process ran from January 2014 to March 2014. According to TfL the objective of the increase was to recoup inflation over the past three years and ensure the charge remains an effective deterrent to making unnecessary journeys in central London.
Fees and penalties
As of 16 June 2014 the following charges apply:
The standard fee is £11.50 per day if paid by midnight on the day of travel, £14 if paid by the end of the following day, or £10.50 if registered with CC Auto pay, an automated payment system which records the number of charging days a vehicle travels within the charging zone each month and bills the customer debit or credit card each month. Businesses with six or more vehicles can register with Fleet Auto Pay, and will be charged £10.50 rather than £11.50 per vehicle per day for each vehicle detected within the zone. From 20 May 2013 failure to pay results in the issuance of a Penalty Charge Notice for £130, reduced to £65 if paid within 14 days, but increased to £195 if unpaid after 28 days.
Discounts and exemptions
Refunds are available to people who pay monthly or annually in advance whose plans change; reimbursements are available to NHS patients assessed to be too ill to travel by public transport, NHS staff using vehicles on official business and fire fighters. Residents living within or very close to the zone are eligible for a 90% discount which is charged via CC Autopay.
The system gives 100% discounts to registered cars which emit 75g/km or less of carbon dioxide and meet the Euro 5 standard, vehicles with 9 or more seats, motor-tricycles, two-wheeled motorbikes (and sidecars), mopeds, accredited breakdown companies and roadside recovery vehicles. All-electric vehicles (BEVs) and eligible plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) qualify for a 100% congestion charge discount. A plug-in electric drive vehicle qualifies if the vehicle is registered with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) and has a fuel type of “electric”, or alternatively, if the vehicle is a “plug-in hybrid” and is on the Government’s list of PHEVs eligible for the OLEV grant. As of February 2016, approved PHEVs include all extended-range vehicles such as the BMW i3 REx, and plug-in hybrids such as the Audi A3 Sportback e-tron, BMW i8, Mitsubishi Outlander P-HEV (passenger and van variants), Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid, and Volkswagen Golf GTE.
End of Greener Vehicle Discount
In November 2012 TfL presented a proposal to end the Greener Vehicle Discount that benefited mainly vehicles with small diesel engines, that avoid the charge because their engines produce emissions of less than 100 g/km of CO2. The proposal was approved by Mayor Boris Johnson in April 2013, after taking into account a number of comments received during the 12-week public consultation that took place. The new scheme, the Ultra Low Emission Discount (ULED), went into effect on 1 July 2013. The ULED introduced more stringent emission standards that limit the free access to the congestion charge zone to all-electric cars, some plug-in hybrids, and any car or van that emits 75g/km or less of CO2 and meets the Euro 5 emission standards for air quality. As of July 2013 there are no internal combustion-only vehicles that meet this criteria. The measure was designed to curb the growing number of diesel vehicles on London’s roads. About 20,000 owners of vehicles registered for the Greener Vehicle Discount by June 2013 were granted a three-year sunset period before they have to pay the full congestion charge. Other changes were the removal of the option to pay the charge in shops, and the penalty charge was increased £10. The sunset period ended on 24 June 2016.
Suspensions, avoidance and evasion
TfL can and does suspend the congestion charge either in a small local area to cope with incidents and if directed to do so by a police officer. The congestion charge was suspended on 7 and 8 July 2005 in response to the terrorist attacks on London Transport. The congestion charge was also suspended on 2 February 2009, in response to an extreme weather event (heavy snow fall) in the London area.
Although avoidance has become more sophisticated, compliance with the scheme and terms of payment has improved over the last few years, as is evidenced by the income from penalties dropping by approximately a quarter between 2005 and 2007. However, even after charges were increased, enforcement charges still make up a significant proportion of the net revenues.
The 2008 annual report on the operation of the scheme shows that around 26% of penalties go unpaid, because the notice is cancelled on appeal or the amount cannot be recovered, for example if the registered keeper of the vehicle cannot be traced, is deceased, or bankrupt.
Entry authorisation and penalties cannot be issued to non-UK number plates, and detection cameras may also be unable to read them, although cars with foreign plates may only be used in the UK for up to six months before being considered to have been officially imported and thenceforth required to have UK plates, and even then only if they are bona fide visitors and not residents.
Several newspapers have reported that copied number plates are being used to avoid the congestion charge, resulting in vehicle owners receiving penalty notices for failure to pay when their vehicles have not been inside the zone. TfL has stated it is keeping a database of these numbers and that they will trigger an alert, including police vehicle ANPR camera alerts.
Payment by embassies
Following pressure from the Mayor of London, an increasing number of embassies accepted the charge and by 2008 a total of 99 out of 128 embassies had agreed to the charge; decliners included Germany, Japan, Russia and the United States, who collectively owed £23 million as of November 2008. The United States and Germany are reported to consider it to be a local tax, from which they are protected by the Vienna Convention, rather than a toll.
In May 2011 Johnson raised the issue with the President of the United States, Barack Obama, who was fined £120 after driving through London in the Presidential state car without paying the toll during a state visit to Buckingham Palace. The United States subsequently claimed diplomatic immunity. A TfL spokesperson noted that U.S. embassies do pay tolls in Oslo and Singapore. As of December 2013, Transport for London estimated that £82m was owed by foreign embassies in London. Since the charge was introduced in 2003, the U.S. Embassy owes the most with £8.78 million, followed by Japan at £6.0 million, Russia with £5.22 million and Nigeria with £4.92 million.