The Public Purpose

Number 55 - February 2003

London on the Eve of Congestion Charging

By Wendell Cox


My London airport odyssey started a bit before 8:00 am on Thursday, 13 February. I boarded the Victoria tube line intending to transfer at Victoria Station to the Gatwick Express that would get me to the American Airlines counter comfortably in advance of my flight to Raleigh-Durham and then on to St. Louis. Fortunately I allowed an extra hour for the journey.


Trouble was soon to rear its ugly head. The train stopped between stations for a few minutes, then lumbered into Euston station where an announcement was made to the effect that signaling difficulties at Oxford Circus were causing delays. There was no indication of the length of delay, which was a good indication for me to exit the train just as others were entering, despite the announcement and in an apparent effort to eclipse Tokyo subway loading standards.


Being familiar with Londonís geography, I set off on a three block walk to Euston Square Station, where I could catch the Circle Line, by which I could access Victoria Station in either direction, though circuitously, while avoiding the Oxford Circus area. After purchasing my ticket and passing through the entry gate there came an announcement to the effect that there were long delays on the Circle Line in both directions. So, I forfeited my second public transport fare and returned to Euston Station where I and perhaps 200 other people waited in the Taxi queue that testified to the shortage of supply relative to demand.


Eventually I got my cab and had the usual enjoyable (really) ride with a professional who called me ďGuv,Ē a common practice among London taxi drivers. The four mile trip took 15 minutes, an ungodly slow 16 miles per hour, but compared to the competition it was rocket-like. One and one-half hours later I entered the station. Then my luck changed. The journey by train to Gatwick was completed without further incident or delay. Then, my flight took off an hour before the security alert that closed the airport.


This is a story likely to be repeated over and over after 17 February, when Mayor Ken Livingstoneís congestion charge takes effect. From that date, people who enter central London by car during the day will have to pay a more than $8.00 charge for the privilege. The Mayor promises to use the proceeds to improve public transport so that the those deterred by the high price will find alternative access by public transport a reasonable alternative.


It is not. For years Londonerís have been putting up with overcrowded public transport services. Worst of all has been the sprawling underground (metro or subway) system, which has seen ridership increase well beyond the capability of a system that has long had serious reliability problems. The congestion charge would make a lot more sense if the public transport improvements had preceded it. The system is in no position to take the additional demand likely to be created by placing the price of mobility to the core beyond the means of the most affluent and those on bulbous corporate expense accounts.


Londonerís are being forced to trade the freedom of mobility (restricted as it is by the market of travel behavior) for the promise of public transport improvements that are far beyond the capability of congestion charge revenues to deliver. This is likely to be one of the most significant international sales of the Brooklyn Bridge, so it is appropriate that it should be under the direction of former New Yorker Bob Kiley, the Mayorís public transport czar.


What effect the congestion charge will have on Londonís traffic or its employment levels is not yet clear. But what is clear is that that the public transport promises cannot be delivered. Like the Soviet planners merciful decades ago, Londonís transport administration seems to have determined that it wonít matter if the bread lines of public transport get just a bit longer.


Translator courtesy of InterTran (opens new window)

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