London motorists face 'pay per mile' charges as Sadiq Khan aims for 27% traffic reduction

Vehicle congestion cost the capital £5.1bn last year, leading to gridlocked traffic and pollution, says report

Traffic on the A205 South Circular road in Lewisham, south London. PA
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London needs to charge motorists by the mile to hit climate change targets, Mayor Sadiq Khan has said.

He wants road pricing to be implemented to encourage people who drive petrol or diesel cars in the capital to switch to public transport, walking, cycling or electric vehicles “where necessary”.

The Labour mayor says he is “not willing to put off action”.

Research commissioned by the mayor found that a 27 per cent reduction in London’s car traffic is required by 2030 to meet net-zero ambitions, announced before Cop26.

The report says that to achieve anywhere near that reduction in car vehicle kilometres, London will need a new kind of road user charging system by the end of the decade at the latest.

Such a system could abolish all existing road user charges, such as the congestion charge and ultra low emission zone charge, and replace them with a programme in which drivers pay per mile, with different rates depending on the type of vehicle, the level of congestion in the area and access to public transport.

Electric vehicles to dominate London car mix by 2030

Using four different scenarios – high electrification, high hydrogen, accelerated green and no constraints – the researchers modelled London's car powertrain mix in both 2030 and 2050.

High electrification, high hydrogen and accelerated green all assume the UK government's ban on the sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 is enacted.

The high-electrification scenario assumes widespread scrappage or significant limitations imposed on all petrol and diesel cars and vans over 10 years old travelling into London.

The high-hydrogen scenario is based on low-cost hydrogen becoming available by the mid 2020s, while the no-constraints scenario assumes London becomes a bellwether for the reduction of petrol and diesel cars around this time too.

Under all scenarios in the 2030 and 2050 models, the electric battery becomes the dominant powertrain in London.

There will still be a significant percentage of petrol and diesel cars on London's roads come 2030, however, according to all the modelled scenarios.

By 2050 they will have been eradicated under all scenarios, with only battery electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicles in circulation.

The report outlines action required to reduce air pollution, tackle the climate emergency and cut congestion in the capital to create a greener, healthier city fit for the future.

Between 2000 and 2018, London achieved a 57 per cent reduction in workplace greenhouse gas emissions and a 40 per cent reduction in emissions from homes, but only a 7 per cent reduction in emissions from transport.

To reduce transport emissions by anywhere close to the amount required to clean up London’s air, achieve net zero by 2030 and cut congestion, the capital will have to make a significant shift away from petrol and diesel vehicle use towards walking and cycling, greater public transport use and cleaner vehicles, the report said.

At the moment, only 2 per cent of vehicles on the roads in London are electric.

Road user charging would be a “simple and fair scheme” that could replace existing fees, according to the report.

But making people pay based on how far they drive has often been viewed as politically toxic.

Consideration of such a scheme has not been government policy since a Labour administration abandoned proposals in 2007 after an online petition attracted 1.8 million signatures.

The document noted that the technology to charge drivers per mile is “still years away from being ready”, so Mr Khan is considering several policies that “could be ready within the next few years”.

He has already introduced and expanded the Ultra-Low Emission Zone and tightened Low-Emission Zone standards – expected to lead to a 5 per cent fall in carbon dioxide emissions from cars and vans in the zone, and a 30 per cent cut in toxic nitrogen oxide emissions from road transport.

However, the new report says more action is required.

One approach is for the Ulez to be extended beyond the North and South Circular Roads to cover the whole of London.

Existing charge levels and emissions standards could be maintained, or a “small” fee could be charged for “all but the cleanest vehicles”.

Mr Khan is also considering charging drivers of vehicles registered outside London for entering the capital.

The chosen programme would be enacted by May 2024.

London feeling the heat

Last year, the capital was affected by the climate emergency first-hand, with soaring temperatures and flash floods.

City Hall analysis has shown that if extreme temperatures and floods worsen, a quarter of London’s rail stations, one in five schools, about half of London’s hospitals and hundreds of thousands of homes and workplaces will be at risk of future flooding.

The air pollution caused by London traffic leads to about 4,000 premature deaths a year and children growing up with stunted lung capacity.

Londoners on lower incomes are more likely to live in areas of the city that are more heavily affected by air pollution and are less likely to own a car.

This new report must act as a stark wake-up call for the government on the need to provide much greater support to reduce carbon emissions in London
Edmund King, AA president

About half of Londoners do not own a car, but they are disproportionally feeling the damaging consequences caused by polluting vehicles.

AA president Edmund King said simply “charging vehicles off the road” is not the solution to cutting pollution.

“We need to encourage the uptake of cleaner, greener vehicles,” he said.

“This new report must act as a stark wake-up call for the government on the need to provide much greater support to reduce carbon emissions in London. It’s clear the scale of the challenge means we can’t do everything alone,” said Mr Khan.

“But I’m not willing to stand by and wait when there’s more we can do in London that could make a big difference. We simply don’t have time to waste.

“The climate emergency means we only have a small window of opportunity left to reduce carbon emissions to help save the planet, and, despite the world-leading progress we have made over the last few years, there is still far too much toxic air pollution permanently damaging the lungs of young Londoners.”

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Updated: January 18, 2022, 12:26 PM