Time to bring road user charging into the digital age

While cities like Singapore are leading the way, in London the system for charging drivers for the congestion and pollution they produce is very much stuck in a previous era, says Silviya Barrett.

Technology innovation has enabled an explosion of new products and services catering to almost every transport need. It would have been inconceivable just 10 years ago that you could book and pay for a private taxi, bike or van hire from the palm of your hand. But a point of irritation remains for the user - you need to have multiple apps downloaded to your phone to access the different services you require. 

Transport authorities around the world – as well as some private operators – have been looking for a way to create platforms that integrate the “mobility as a service” offer in one place. In London, the key to unlocking this opportunity may lie with road user charging.

While cities like Singapore are leading the way, in London the system for charging drivers for the congestion and pollution they produce is very much stuck in a previous era. The Congestion Charge was pioneering and world leading when it was introduced over 15 years ago, but it is a flat daily charge that costs drivers the same regardless of how much or when they drive within the zone. This has meant that since the charge’s introduction, congestion has crept back up, due to an increase in traffic outside of charging hours and by exempt vehicles.

And while the recently launched Ultra Low Emission Zone is a much needed and welcome measure to tackle toxic air in the city centre, it relies on the same payment and enforcement technology. It also comes on top of the existing Congestion Charge, the London-wide Low Emission Zone and the Dartford Charge, creating a confusing system for drivers to navigate.

New smartphone and in-vehicle technology both present an opportunity for a more sophisticated approach, charging drivers per mile and with rates variable by vehicle emissions, local pollution and congestion levels and availability of public transport alternatives. 

Our new report, Green Light, suggests that London should lead the way in developing a single platform that integrates road charging with the rest of the capital’s transport system. It would be available as a web platform and app, which we’re calling City Move, to help everyone travel across London more easily. With tube, train, bus, bike hire, car clubs, etc. all at people’s fingertips, Londoners would be able to easily compare the cost, journey times and associated impacts of alternative options, all in one place.

The technology would also mean that accounts could be linked to the individual, rather than the vehicle, offering the opportunity for targeted discounts, car sharing and splitting the journey cost when riding together – which are not possible under the current system. 

By enabling people to make informed travel choices and to leave their car at home whenever possible, City Move could help reduce overall vehicle usage and create a healthier, more liveable London. London has always been a leader in transport innovation and design. It is time for our approach to transport planning and charging to keep up with the pace of change.

Silviya Barrett is research manager at Centre for London and author of the report Green Light: Next Generation of Road User Charging for a Healthier, More Liveable, London.

If you would like to contact Andy Walker about this, or any other story, please email awalker@infrastructure-intelligence.com.