From this morning, London Mayor Sadiq Khan's new Toxicity Charge (or "T-Charge") comes into effect in the existing Congestion Charge zone. It's the first step in a range of new charges aimed at polluting vehicles in London in the coming years.
London has had emissions-based road pricing for a decade now, in the form of the Low Emission Zone (LEZ), a scheme that cover the whole of Greater London and allows only heavy goods vehicles that meet certain emissions standards. Those that don't can only enter the zone if they pay a daily charge of up to £200.
Unfortunately, London still has a problem with air quality - not just a problem, in fact, but if the headlines this year are to be believed, a crisis. (It's not alone - many cities in the UK and across Europe are in a similar position, but in London's case the situation is particularly awful.) Right now, 95% of Londoners live in an area where the air quality exceeds World Health Organisation limits for air pollution. That's not just healthy people of working age breathing in toxic fumes when they commute into Central London for their working day; that's everyone - adults, children, the elderly - living and sleeping in polluted air day in, day out.
The state of London's air is now political, regularly appearing in the news and with campaigners very loudly and publicly demanding action. Sadiq Khan is now putting the issue at the heart of his work as Mayor and is keen to be seen as the man with a plan to fix it.
His first step is the brand new T-Charge.
T in the City
The new measure is being branded the "T-Charge", and the T is short for Toxicity. Its formal name, which is only used by lawyers and its mother over Sunday lunch, is the Emissions Surcharge. It is a £10 bolt-on to the existing Congestion Charge, that is due on vehicles that don't meet either Euro 3 (for cars and light vehicles) or Euro IV (for heavy goods vehicles) emissions standards. That means, generally speaking, vehicles manufactured in 2006 or earlier, though Transport for London advise anyone with a vehicle more than a decade old to check before entering the zone.
There can be little argument that the intention of the new T-Charge is right and justified, but criticism is emerging on three fronts.
Is it just a tax on the poor?
Few people drive in to Central London on a weekday for fun. Those who commute in, in a private car, will be very wealthy indeed if they can afford the Congestion Charge on a daily basis and the exorbitant cost of parking, or they will have a dedicated space at their workplace, in which case they must be a senior executive on a very substantial salary, and they are unlikely to be driving a car more than a decade old. The people most likely to be taking a pre-2006 vehicle into Central London are people on lower incomes who run small businesses.
Will it fail to address the worst polluters?
Already, inside the Congestion Charge zone, a large proportion of the traffic is made up of red buses and black cabs. They are all exempt from both the Congestion Charge and the new T-Charge. How many of them still run old, dirty diesel engines? The answer is less of them than you might think, and the new measure comes with £300m of new money to accelerate the replacement of buses with new, cleaner models. 12 new Low Emission Bus Zones are being created, targeting the cleanest buses in the current fleet to the most polluted areas.
Will it actually affect anyone at all?
The number of vehicles that will be liable for the T-Charge is actually quite small - TfL's estimate is 34,000 a month, or a bit more than 1,000 a day. There's already been a reduction of 15% in that figure since February when the T-Charge was first announced. So the new measure may be more symbolic than a step-change in pollution levels, but its introduction will make it easier to tighten up controls in future now that it exists.
The current charges, payment methods and charging hours are listed on CBRD's London Congestion Charge page.
T for everyone
The T-Charge is only the start, and will run for the next 18 months or so until it is superceded by the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ). Unlike the existing LEZ, the ULEZ will apply to all vehicles and Khan's stated ambition is that it will throw the net right out to the North and South Circular Roads. It will operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, unlike the existing Charge, so there will be no exceptions. That will bring a very significant slice of London into the charge area. It will extend out to many suburban parts of London with popular shopping centres and other attractions that thousands of people visit by car every day. It's a very different proposition and it will make a much bigger difference to life in London.
The ULEZ will also hit diesel cars disproportionately hard. The current plan is that the emissions requirement for heavy vehicles and petrol cars will be the same as the T-Charge, but diesel cars will be required to meet the much stricter Euro 6 standard. That means most diesel vehicles manufactured before 2016 will have to pay.
One thing we do learn from today, T-Charge launch day, is that the opposition to the ULEZ might not be so vociferous or widespread as you might think. The T-Charge has started today with plenty of news coverage but little noticeable complaint, and most of the negative voices are unhappy either that it will hit poorer drivers hardest or that it doesn't tackle London's remaining dirty double deckers.
The idea that London's roads are getting more expensive, and that vehicles that pollute will pay more, doesn't seem to be very controversial. And given the need to clean up the air that Londoners breathe - that we all breathe - that, in fact, I am breathing while I write this in Central London - perhaps that's no surprise.
I'll believe they're really serious when I see the trolleybus wires going back up. London Transport built up probably the largest trolleybus network in the western world from the 30s onwards by conversion of tram routes, then scrapped it after the War with the last routes closing in 1962. This silent service was really excellent, (I travelled on them every year when visiting my grandparents in Putney). I suppose nobody thought about pollution from vehicles in those days, as that from smoke from coal fires overwhelmed eveything else it resulting in the infamous London smogs, the last one occurring in 1959. And of course the traffic was far less anyway.
I am not convinced that old cars are the problem, especially as people naturally buy newer replacement cars anyway. Cars in London have never been more modern and never been cleaner. I believe the problem is road design and space allocation. The latest fad for planners to demolish free flowing roads and replace everything with a set of traffic lights and a cycle lane means that cars have to start and stop when driving in London more than they used to. To reduce pollution we need to discourage cycling so we can remove cycle lanes and unnecessary crossings, then build more flyovers and underpasses so that traffic can move smoothly, thereby using less fuel and emitting fewer pollutants.
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- T-Charge (Transport for London)
- T-Charge launch information: "Mayor's new £10 'T-Charge' starts today in Central London" (Mayor of London)
- Cleaner buses and Bus Low Emission Zones: "How we're cleaning up London's air" (Greater London Assembly)
- Ultra Low Emission Zone (Transport for London)