Political Acceptability of Road Pricing: Will London Confirm the Theory?

Political Acceptability of Road Pricing: Will London Confirm the Theory?


S Ison, Loughborough University; G Santos, Cambridge University; T Rye, Napier University, UK



On February 17 2003 the London Charging Scheme will commence. Apart from the one historic street in Durham city centre, where a £2 toll was introduced in October 2002, it will be the first in the UK that a road user charge will have been implemented. At this stage it is not guaranteed that the scheme will work and the main concern seems to be public acceptability.

The Mayor of London included proposals for a scheme to reduce congestion in his election manifesto and won the election. There is however great opposition from motorists, and this is in part reflected in the www.sod-u-ken.com web-site, where people can sign petitions and complain about the scheme. Will public opposition and refusal to pay be enough to lead to the schemes demise?

Ison and Rye (2002) assess road user charging in the UK within the framework of the preconditions necessary for perfect implementation of policies as put forward by Gunn (1978). These are: (1) The circumstances external to the implementing agency do not impose crippling constraints. (2) Adequate time and sufficient resources are made available to the programme. (3) The required combination of resources is actually available. (4) The policy to be implemented is based upon a valid theory of cause. (5) The relationship between cause and effect is direct and there are few, if any, intervening links. (6) There is a single implementing agency which need not depend upon other agencies for success or, if other agencies must be involved, that the dependency relationships are minimal in number and importance. (7) There is complete understanding of, and agreement upon, the objectives to be achieved and these conditions persist throughout the implementation process. (8) Tasks are fully specified in correct sequence. (9) There is perfect communication and co-ordination. (10) Those in authority can demand and obtain perfect compliance.

In the case of London, these conditions are partly met. The problem is that they are not fully met. It remains to be seen whether the fact that the conditions are almost but not fully met will cause the London Congestion Charging Scheme to fail. Taking each of the preconditions: (1) In terms of the External circumstances: there is no doubt congestion has reached unacceptable levels in Central London throughout the day, there are no peaks and off-peaks but flat low average speeds between 7a.m and 6.30 p.m every week day. (2) Adequate time and sufficient resources: numerous studies were carried out over the years and this particular scheme has been under study and scrutiny since 1999, when the Greater London Authority (GLA) was given legal powers to charge for congestion (Acts of the UK Parliament, 2000). The Greater London (Central Zone) Congestion Charging Order 2001 was made by Transport for London on 23 July 2001 and confirmed by the Mayor in February 2002 (Transport for London, 2002). Resources were also allocated to the study of the different technical possibilities, modelling, cost-benefit analysis and public consultations. This was done by consultants who were commissioned by Transport for London. Are the resources and time invested in the project sufficient? Are the model results and predictions accurate? (3) Actual availability of resources: Transport for London has already set aside £100 million for traffic management schemes (Transport for London, 2003) and as of the end of January 2003 there are already 11,000 additional bus places on London buses driving into the charging zone. Will this be enough? Will the underground be able to cope with the estimated 4,000 increase in demand as estimated? (4) Policy to be implemented based upon a valid theory of cause: no doubt the theory of cause is valid and indeed goes back to the work of the Cambridge economist, Arthur Pigou (1920). The question however from a strictly theoretical point of view is that the London congestion charging scheme will not be based on social marginal cost pricing. Santos, Newbery and Rojey (2001) show that a second best charge, different from social marginal cost, can improve efficiency, but if set at an incorrect level, it can also decrease social welfare. Although there is not doubt as to the theoretical basis for the internalisation of the congestion externality, there can be some doubt as to the correct second best charge level in London. (5) Direct relationship between cause and effect: the advantage of the scheme in London being simple and not technologically sophisticated, is also a disadvantage: penalty charges will ultimately be dealt with manually. Although the initial identification of violators will be done by a computer, the checking of each recorded image and issue of a penalty charge notice to the registered keeper or hirer will be done manually. It may become impossible to track down all offenders if these are too many. (6) Single implementing agency: there is a single implementing agency, the GLA. On the other hand many London Boroughs will be affected by the scheme. (7) Understanding of, and agreement upon, the objectives to be achieved and these conditions persist throughout the implementation process: in the case of London there is both understanding and agreement of the objectives. A problem however may appear if these are not kept through the implementation process. (8) Tasks fully specified in correct sequence: in the case of the London congestion charging scheme officials have made an effort to have everything organised and ready to start on Feb 17th 2003 (registration of exempted vehicles and discounts, information clearly available to the public, etc). This condition seems to be fully met. (9) Perfect communication and co-ordination: this condition has also been fully met as the reasons for introducing the policy have been made clear. The authors have no information at this point on the quality of information flowing between the different boroughs in London and part of the project will look into that. (10) Those in authority can demand and obtain perfect compliance: as identified in point (5), the GLA has authority to demand perfect compliance. Whether it will be able to do so remains to be seen. The problem may arise from the penalty charges being dealt with manually.

There is an endless list of articles in the transport literature dealing with the public and acceptability of road user charging (and linked aspects such as equity). They are mostly based on experiments, surveys or models (Morrison, 1986; Starkie, 1986; Small, 1983, 1992; National Economic Development Office, 1991; Goodwin, 1989, 1990; Flowerdew, 1993; Ison 1996, 2000; Richardson and Bae, 1998; Jones, 1998; Nevin and Abbie, 1993; Lewis, 1994, 1996; Lex Services, 1998), and on analysis of the Singapore (Gómez Ibáñez and Small, 1994; Phang and Toh, 1997; Clark, 2000) or the Norwegian outcomes (Odeck and Bråthen, 1997; Wærsted, 1998a and 1998b, ITS International, 1999). The general conclusion seems to be that drivers might be willing to pay if revenues are kept in the transport sector and used for example, to improve public transport. Additionally, public transport as a good and valid alternative to the car should be available at the time the scheme starts. Will this be enough in the case of London?

The scheme would be a success if the expected changes were achieved: traffic reduction of between 10 and 15%, travel time reduction and speeds increase, transfer from cars to public transport, annual net revenues of £130m. The scheme would be a failure if those objectives were not met. The reasons for a failure could be varied and at this stage are difficult to predict but include massive violation and non-payment, low elasticity, or even traffic blockades in protest. All these problems fall within the non-full-compliance of the conditions stated above.

The aim of this paper is to assess the reasons why congestion charging in London has progressed so far with respect to the preconditions for perfect implementation put forward by Gunn. The paper will highlight elements of good practice contained within the London congestion charging implementation which are relevant for other authorities throughout Europe considering such a strategy.


Association for European Transport