For most of the twentieth century, right through to the present day, London's traffic problems have been the stuff of legend. Cars, delivery vans and buses form a slow-moving swamp of vehicles down most of the main streets for most of the day, and have for decades. It's no surprise that, over the years, there have been all sorts of new and innovative proposals to clean up the mess.
Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London from 2000 to 2008, caused a political storm when he declared that he was going to charge motorists for something that has always been free to them - the roads. Introduced in 2003, and extended in 2007, the Congestion Charging Zone has remained controversial ever since.
- What is the Congestion Charge?
- Where and when does it operate?
- How does it work?
- What do I pay?
- What happens if I don't pay?
What is the Congestion Charge?
As early as the 1930s, not long after the days when a passing car would cause people to come out of their homes to watch, the capital was gridlocked. There have been plans ever since to fix it, but none got far. From the 1940s until the 1970s, proposals were made for new ring roads, dual carriageways, motorways, multi-level interchanges and tunnels to sort out the traffic, but they all withered when faced with public opposition to the destruction and desecration they would cause across the city.
With no way to build out of the problem, the traffic jams remained. A different kind of solution was proposed in the late 1990s by Ken Livingstone, a former leader of the Greater London Council in the 1980s who had been known for irritating the Conservative government with his "loony left" policies. The famous quotation "I hate cars. If I ever get any power again, I'll ban the lot" has been repeatedly attributed to him, and summarises his reputation for transport planning with a heavy bias towards public transport.
His solution to the traffic problem - which he was able to pursue after his election as an independent London Mayor in 2000 - was to impose a financial penalty on traffic in Central London, with the intention that it would be avoided by anyone not on truly essential business there, freeing up space for public transport and making the place more pleasant for pedestrians.
The zone began operation on 17 February 2003 and was extended west on 19 February 2007. Ken Livingstone was replaced as Mayor of London by Boris Johnson in 2008, who cancelled Livingstone's plans to link Congestion Charge pricing to vehicle emissions, and who now proposes to scrap the western extension to the Congestion Charge zone. There are no present plans, however, to scrap the original zone, and it looks set to remain a permanent feature of London's streets.
Where and when does it operate?
The Congestion Charge zone covers most of central London, including most parts of Westminster, the City of London, Southwark, Lambeth, Chelsea and Kensington. With certain exceptions, it encompasses the whole area within the Inner Ring Road, and (with the addition of the western extension) an area between the Inner Ring and the A3220. The zone is marked by road signs and markings featuring a prominent red "C" symbol.
The roads forming the zone boundary are free to use, as are two free routes: the western side of the Inner Ring Road (including Park Lane and Vauxhall Bridge Road), which previously formed the western boundary of the scheme before it was extended, and the A40 Westway, which is an elevated road running across the north-western corner of the zone but which does not connect with any of the streets there.
The Congestion Charge operates Monday to Friday between 7am and 6pm, though it is occasionally suspended in exceptional circumstances at the discretion of the Mayor.
Vehicles entering the zone during the hours of operation are liable to pay a charge, and failure to pay the charge can result in steep fines or prosecution. The scheme applies to foreign-registered vehicles as well as British ones.
How does it work?
Travelling around London, direction signs were updated in 2003 and 2007 so that any entrance to the Congestion Charge zone is marked unambiguously on surrounding roads. The red "C" symbol is used to mark roads where charging begins.
On smaller side streets, there is often an advance sign with a "C" symbol and an arrow to indicate a minor entrance to the zone.
A white version of the symbol is painted on the road in traffic lanes that lead to the Congestion Charge zone, and red-and-white symbols are painted at entry points.
Signage for the Inner Ring Road was reinforced in 2003 and motorists wishing to avoid the charge should follow "Ring Road" wherever possible to stay outside the zone.
Caught on camera
Cameras are placed at every entrance and exit from the Congestion Charge zone. There is a black and white camera for each lane of traffic to capture registration plates, and a colour camera recording an overview of the whole road.
Vehicle registration plates are read automatically and processed at the control centre. The details are then checked against Transport for London's database. Images of exempt vehicles and those that have already paid the charge are discarded immediately. The rest are stored, and the details are deleted once the charge has been paid.
Within the zone
Inside the Congestion Charge zone, there are occasional signs to remind motorists that they are subject to the charge, mainly to make it less likely that people will cross the zone boundary and then forget to pay.
There are also further cameras placed at strategic points throughout the zone to reduce the chances that vehicles will enter and go unnoticed. Mobile camera vans are also used at undisclosed locations.
Paying the charge
The Congestion Charge can be paid up to 90 days in advance or until midnight on the day the charge was incurred. Monthly and annual discounts are available for regular travellers.
The charge can be paid through Transport for London's website, by telephone on 0845 900 1234, by text (for registered users) on 81099, or in one of hundreds of shops across London that display the Congestion Charge symbol.
What do I pay?
For most vehicles the charge is £8 per day, regardless of the time spent within the zone or the number of times the zone boundary is crossed. Various exceptions and exemptions are permitted by Transport for London, which are detailed below (correct at November 2009).
|Charge||Types of vehicle||Action necessary|
|Free||Motorbikes, mopeds and bicycles
Black cabs and other minicabs
Emergency services and tax-exempt NHS vehicles
Other tax-exempt vehicles used by the disabled
TfL buses and other vehicles in the tax class "Buses"
|Free||Buses from other EU states
HM Coastguard and Port Authority vehicles
Vehicles for London Boroughs and Royal Parks
The armed forces
|Register with TfL|
|Free||Electric, alternative fuel and dual-fuel vehicles
Vehicles with 9 or more seats that are not licenced as a bus
Blue Badge holders, including those who do not own a vehicle or drive themselves, may register two vehicles as exempt
|Registration with TfL, incurring a £10 fee|
|£0.80||Residents living within the Congestion Charge zone or immediately adjacent to it, at the discretion of Transport for London||Annual registration with TfL, incurring a £10 fee|
|£7.00||Organisations with a fleet of 10 or more vehicles||Register a Fleet AutoPay account with TfL|
What happens if I don't pay?
The charge can be paid at the normal rate until midnight on the day it was incurred (or, if it was incurred on a Friday, until midnight on Sunday evening). It can be paid until midnight on the following day at the increased cost of £10.
If the charge has not been paid after that time the registered keeper of the vehicle is sent a Penalty Charge Notice and is liable for a fine of up to £180.
In the event of non-payment, the black-and-white image of the car showing its registration number is stored for prosecution and possible court case, and the image from the colour camera is also stored to provide corroborative evidence (such as the colour and make of the car) to prove the vehicle was correctly identified.
It is thought that the cameras can be avoided if a vehicle changes lanes as it passes through one of the camera sites - confusing the system by not being in any particular lane at the point the cameras would register it. However, given the number of cameras in the system and the volumes of traffic at the time the charge is in operation, pulling off such a maneouvre reliably at every camera site would be almost impossible - and probably not worth the trouble for an £8 charge anyway.
This is not the official Congestion Charge website.
For up-to-date information, and to make enquiries about the scheme, visit Transport for London.
With thanks to Rob Fairhead for information on this page.