New York Congestion Charge: A Warning from London

If everything goes according to a really bad plan, New York will soon become the first major American city to introduce a traffic congestion charge. This idea was inspired by a scheme in London and it would be wise to consider how it has fared in that city.

Brainchild of incredibly liberal Mayor Ken Livingstone, the London congestion charge was instituted in February 2003. Imposing an entry fee of ₤5 over an area of some 22 square kilometers, London was hailed as an expedient and relatively painless solution to London’s chronic traffic problem. Soon after taking effect, however, it became clear that the venture was not living up to expectations. London traffic is no less horrendous.

Today — less than five years later — the chargeable zone is twice the original area and the fee has shot up to ₤8. Yet even these measures have failed to substantially alleviate the problem as traveling times on many routes still hover near their pre-charge levels.

Having failed to fix the problem for which it was expressly designed, Ken Livingstone had to face the fact that the “congestion” charge was just another tax. As a lib. he couldn’t conceive relieving commuters of its burden, so he just changed the justification for it. Impatient with the sluggishness of the national government in tackling the great problems of our time, he announced his intention to use the congestion charge as a weapon in the fight against man-made global warming.

As a first step, he suggested a special congestion fee for SUVs to be set at ₤25. Yes, you are reading correctly. SUV owners would have to pay $50 dollars for each day they venture into the designated area. But this is not all, for the mayor has also floated the idea of expanding the chargeable zone to the whole region under his jurisdiction. Should Livingstone’s plans succeed, the whole of London would one day become an enormous congestion sector where SUV owners would have to pay a staggering $12,000 a year for the privilege of driving their car in their own city.

Needless to say, non-SUV drivers should not hold out any false hopes either, for their hour of reckoning cannot be too far away. Not as long as the man who in 1999 told the Sunday Times that he would ban cars if he could remains in charge. Less than one year after making that ominous statement, Livingstone won office and acquired the power to make good on his promise. True to his word, he wasted no time.

The poignant words of that dirge cannot but come to mind in this for cars dire hour: ‘First they came for the SUVs, and I stayed silent. Then they came for the sedans, and I still said nothing. Then they came for the minis and no one spoke up for me. And now I am riding a bicycle.’

Such an outcome would no doubt be wholeheartedly welcomed by car-averse Livingstone. Except that cyclists will not get a free ride either as Londoners may get slapped with fees and paperwork even as they mount their new two-wheeled friends. Believe it or not, the mayor has also been talking about requiring license plates for bicycles, apparently to enforce road etiquette. Obviously, there are no limits to the foolhardiness of European liberalism. But we Americans should not laugh too hard given that the whole thing is already making its way across the ocean as New Yorkers are about find out.

But car owners will not be the only ones adversely affected by the congestion scheme. London’s downtown businesses have been experiencing a painful loss of revenues and there has been a steady outflow of jobs to the suburbs. To make matters worse, the public transport was ill-prepared to deal with the increased demands on its services. A journey today in central London atop a double-decker takes roughly the same amount of time it took the Victorians to cover the same route in their horse-drawn carriages. But not all is woe, as those desirous of personal touch can get their fill on the notoriously overcrowded rush-hour Tube. So much for the many benefits prophesied by the mayor when he was selling the idea to the gullible inhabitants of the British capital.

What began in London innocently as an apparently modest and limited program has quickly turned into a costly and troublesome nightmare. New Yorkers need to pay close attention, for schemes such as the one currently dangled before them are usually nothing more than attempts by leftist politicians to clamp down on the car and, if possible, wreak raise taxes as well.

Should the New York proposal become reality, three things will almost certainly happen: Traffic will not be substantially reduced; more of the same will be implemented once the failure becomes obvious; and more money will be taken away in unjust taxation.

New York City has been successful for far too long for liberal activists to test whacky ideas on the public. They truly could do no better than take their cue from Ken Livingstone who has been using the congestion racket as an excuse for implementing his anti-freedom and anti-prosperity agenda. But then, what else could you expect from a man who is also known as ‘Ken the Red’ and that not because of the color of his hair.

Those in New York tempted by the promises of a transportation panacea that is to follow the imposition of the congestion charge should consider just how poorly it has worked in London.