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April 15th, 2016
Infrastructure • Cities • Energy • Finance

London’s congestion charge

As the new millennium began, London’s traffic was becoming increasingly slow-moving and environmentally harmful. For forty years, local and national government had analysed and debated the issue of a charging scheme for private vehicles in central London. When Ken Livingstone ran successfully for mayor in 2000, he pledged to introduce congestion charging as part of his transport strategy for the city. On 17 February 2003 the scheme began, and it is now an accepted feature of London’s roads.

The initiative

The Greater London Authority Act 1999 defined the new Greater London Authority (GLA), and gave the mayor of London the power to provide guidance and directives to London's transport body, Transport for London (TfL). “Schedule 23 of the Act included provision for road user charging schemes, and Schedule 24 for workplace parking levies.” [2]

In November 2000, the incoming mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, began preliminary consultation on his Draft Transport Strategy. This contained detailed information on how the proposed scheme might operate. “The Technical Assessment Report on the Road Charging Options for London (ROCOL) was published in 2000, forming the basis for the Congestion Charging scheme of today.” [3]

After the decision was taken to go ahead with congestion charging, “an extensive public information campaign, to inform Londoners and visitors of the nature and details of the scheme, took place over the Autumn and Winter of 2002-2003”.

The central London congestion charging scheme was successfully introduced on schedule on 17 February 2003. The charging area now extends from Kings Cross in the north to Elephant and Castle in the south, Hyde Park Corner in the west and Old Street roundabout to the east. The charging period runs from 7am to 6pm and the standard charge is currently £11.50 per day. Charging zone residents receive a 90 percent discount while certain vehicles are exempt, such as buses, taxis and electric vehicles and certain drivers, such as the disabled.

The primary aim of the programme was to reduce the number of private vehicles entering central London during the day and “to facilitate greater use of transportation alternatives, producing environmental and safety improvements and in turn, raising substantial net revenues”. [4]

The challenge

London has limited road capacity but a high demand for road travel. At the turn of the millennium, “London suffered the worst congestion in the United Kingdom, with average traffic speeds slower than 8 [miles per hour]. The city lost between an estimated £2 million and £4 million every week in terms of time lost due to congestion.” [1] The congestion also affected the air quality, with high levels of pollution.

Studies assessing the viability of a congestion charge in London had been conducted since the mid-1960s, for example, the Smeed Report prepared by Reuben Smeed and his fellow committee members in 1964. This report advocated ‘road pricing'. But the government had resisted such recommendations as being too unpopular. London, though, was a special case.

The public impact

The scheme had significant impact from the outset:

  • There was a 37 percent increase in the number of passengers entering the congestion charging zone by bus during charging hours in the first year.
  • “Greenhouse gas emission was reduced by 16 percent from 2002 to 2003. NOX and PM10 within the congestion charging zone decreased by 18 percent and 22 percent, respectively, by 2004." [5]
  • The scheme generated £122 million net in 2005/2006.
  • By 2006, the congestion charging zone had reduced congestion in central London by 26 percent from its 2002 levels.
  • There have been between 40 and 70 percent fewer accidents that resulted in personal injury within the zone.
  • Based on the original £8 charge, the scheme was estimated to save £2.5 million per year as a result of a reduction in vehicle mile travelled, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions.
  • The scheme achieved a cost efficiency of £78 million when all costs and benefits were considered.
  • The congestion charge boosted sales of hybrid cars.”

Stakeholder engagement

There was good involvement from stakeholders including the mayor of London, TfL, the London Assembly, the national government, and local authorities.

  • The initiative was planned by Ken Livingstone in collaboration with ROCOL, TfL and the London Assembly. TfL used its General Fund for the expenses to be incurred in the scheme.
  • The UK government provided some funding through the Ministry of Transport.
  • The local authorities in the congestion charging zone used a network of video cameras to record licence plate numbers.
  • The Department for Transport, local authority highway authorities and the Highways Agency worked closely with TfL in installing signage for the scheme indicating, for example, where the charging zone boundaries were located.

Political commitment

The mayor's election manifesto had included plans for the implementation of the congestion charging scheme, which indicates the political commitment at the city level.

Ken Livingstone stood as an Independent. However, opposing politicians opposed the initiative with the Conservative mayoral candidate promising to end the congestion charge if elected.

Westminster City Council, one of the councils with land in the charging zone  was also strongly opposed to the charge.

Public confidence

Public confidence was low initially. The scheme was criticised by politicians, motorists, and some trade unions. Newspapers in London were also critical of the idea.

Ken Livingstone was elected as mayor with sizeable majorities in 2000, when congestion charging was an important part of his manifesto, and again in 2004, after the charge had been well established.

The congestion charge has now become largely accepted by public opinion, partly because the environmental issues have become more prominent.

Clarity of objectives

The objectives stated at the outset were clear. The aim of the scheme was to reduce traffic congestion in central London and to facilitate greater use of transport alternatives, such as buses, producing environmental and safety improvements and in turn, raising substantial net revenues.

Strength of evidence

“In the case of London's congestion charge, extensive research and trials were conducted prior to the actual launch. Findings from the research and trials had a critical role in providing convincing evidence to win over public acceptance.” [6]

London officials had analysed the existing congestion charging scheme in Singapore. There had been a number of studies in the forty years before charging began. As well as the Smeed Report, “in the early 1990s the Government carried out the London Congestion Charging Research Programme, which explored several potential charging schemes for central and inner London and looked at aspects of scheme operation”. [7]

The most influential study was “the Technical Assessment Report on the Road Charging Options for London, [which] was published in 2000, forming the basis for the Congestion Charging scheme of today.” [8]


There were widespread concerns that there would be substantial legal, technical and political risks surrounding the progress of any actual scheme in the medium term.

Westminster City Council and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea applied unsuccessfully for judicial review of the charge in the High Court in 2002. The Greater London Authority Act 1999 gave some legal force to the charge, as it was included in Schedule 23: “a charging scheme may only be made if it appears desirable or expedient for the purpose of directly or indirectly facilitating the achievement of any policies or proposals set out in the Mayor's transport strategy”. [9] The transport strategy included references to the scheme.

The Greater London Council's 1990 report concluded that “congestion charging could be both feasible and worthwhile as a traffic management tool in London, but that there would be substantial technological, public acceptability and political risks”. [10]

The ROCOL working group report concluded that “an area charging scheme in central London, with camera-based enforcement with a daily charge of £5 for cars and £15 for heavy commercial vehicles was potentially feasible, effective and publicly acceptable”. [11]

It was, however, the largest such scheme ever undertaken by a capital city and required significant funding. The National Audit Office considered that “early preparation of a focused business case led to early commitment to funding and resource". [12]


Overall responsibility for managing the scheme was allocated to one agency, TfL, which manages the whole of London's transport network. This move ensured “sensible design, implementation and ongoing management of the scheme and that it was integrated with the wider transport strategy for the city.” [13]

The project management was considered to be particularly effective:

  • “In November 2004 the National Audit Office published its Initial Performance Assessment for [TfL], with a specific focus on the implementation of congestion charging. The Office particularly complimented TfL on the effectiveness of the project management arrangements that had underpinned the successful implementation of the scheme.” [14]
  • “A clear project management structure was implemented, with regular meetings between senior TfL staff, the project managers, and the Mayor's office. Roles and responsibilities of key team members were clearly defined, with all key decisions being taken by a weekly Project Board." [15]


From the introduction of the plan in 2003 until 2008, TfL produced detailed annual Impacts Monitoring Reports, reflecting a commitment to monitor the scheme for five years following its introduction. This formed part of a programme carried out by TfL in conjunction with academic bodies to evaluate the transport, economic, social and environmental impacts of congestion charging.

Some of the examples of evaluations were: environmental impact; economic impact, e.g. the annual net revenues from charging; and transport impact, e.g. by 2006, the congestion charging zone had reduced congestion in central London by 26 percent.


There was a great deal of cooperation between the bodies responsible for initiating and managing the scheme, the mayor and the London Assembly and TfL, as well as support from the national government through the Ministry of Transport and the Highways Agency.

There was, however, a lack of alignment with the Conservative members of the assembly and with Conservative-controlled local authorities such as Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea.

Alignment with local needs was ensured through a thorough consultation process. “Consultation was a consistent element of the development process for the scheme, including the preliminary development of the Mayor's Transport Strategy. As well as informal and formal consultation exercises, TfL engaged with Londoners through numerous public and stakeholder meetings. Various significant changes to the proposals for the scheme were made in response to feedback received through these consultations, the results of which were published.” [16]

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