The charge was introduced about 4 years ago, first in Central London (in the area that would correspond to most cities' Central Business District or "downtown") and then, in February of this year, it was extended westwards to cover the mainly residential area of the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (K&C). The original charge was £5/day; once the extension was put in place it rose to £8. Wikipedia carries a useful summary. The hours are currently 7am to 6pm, Monday to Friday.
The charge works because London has the world's largest network of CC-TV cameras*. If your vehicle is spotted within the Zone, during the hours of operation, you are required to pay the charge or be fined. However, it doesn't matter if you enter the Zone once or twenty times in that day, you only pay one charge.
The whole thing was devised by our car-hating mayor. The publicly espoused theory is that it will get cars off the road in Central London, thus improving air quality. In reality, it is an extra tax on drivers and residents of the zone:-
- The majority of vehicles in Central London are there because they have to be and can't avoid it. That has been the case since the 1960's. Only very wealthy people EVER drive into Central London to go to work, shop or visit the theatre. Nobody else could afford to park. Parking is limited and prohibitively expensive. I once paid £40 for an afternoon, when public transport problems meant driving in after work was my only option to meet my friend.
- I did used to drive across Central London to go to work, back in the days when I lived in Catford and worked in Ealing. I drove because it was my least stressful option - if I took the train, I would have to change trains at least twice, and deal with up to 5 rail companies. The biggest stress was that I couldn't rely on my connections actually connecting with each other. The drive across London was the quickest, least congested route. This is my vested interest.
- There is an oft-spouted statistic that London's congestion increased by 16% in the 5 years prior to the Zone. What isn't usually mentioned is that actual vehicle numbers DID NOT increase. The increase in congestion is down to a) poor phasing of traffic lights; b) bus and cycle lane schemes that make at least one lane of the road in question unusable to cars and trucks; and c) various "traffic calming" measures, which remove part or all of one lane's-worth of road thus narrowing a not-wide road still further.
- Prior to the extension of the Zone westwards, traffic in Central London had returned to it's pre-Zone levels. Air pollution has increased.
- There was no call to extend the Zone westwards. In fact, many local residents strongly protested against it. The Mayor did a "consultation exercise" and announced before it was over that he was going to ignore the results and go ahead anyway. With the exception of a few major roads like the A4 (the Great West Road), drivers in K&C are usually local residents. This wasn't even the most congested borough in London (I think that title goes to mayor-loving Islington). What K&C is, though, is packed to the rafters with wealthy people who don't support the mayor. (Can anyone spell vindictive?)
- Residents of the Zone get a 90% discount. Given that there is little off-street parking, this means that they are forced to pay an extra tax of at least £200 per year if they own a car even if they don't drive it every day (plus an admin charge for buying their season pass). If they don't buy a season pass, they don't get the discount. Call me stupid, but wouldn't this encourage Zone residents to drive so that they could get their money's worth?
- You can't run an account. It's not like the e-tolls they have in Australia, where your account is debited every time you, say, cross the bridge over the Brisbane River. If you pay the Charge and don't use it, it's your loss.
- As usual, the Charge has hit the poorest the most: cleaners, workers at Smithfield Meat Market, tradesmen. Take the workers at the meat market: most start work at 3am, finishing around 9am. At 3am, their transport choices are walk to work or drive. Few have the option of catching a night bus (which run hourly, take forever, don't connect up with other night buses and don't have full London coverage). Traditionally, they drove and parked in the car-park under the Market. At £5 a day, many struggled to make ends meet. At £8, who knows?
- The Mayor is currently threatening to increase the Charge to £25 for drivers of 4-wheel drives, high performance vehicles and larger engined vehicles. Given that they log into the DVLA records to identify the car when you pay the charge, I'm assuming that this will hit drivers of all 4-wheel drives, not just SUVs. So, if you drive a Subaru sedan in London, look out!!! (All Subaru vehicles are 4-wheel drive; even their smallest compact car.)
The biggest irony of the whole thing is that Central London is not the site of the most congestion in London and never has been. I think the award for most congested road is still held by the South Circular, closely followed by the North Circular (in my book, the South Circ wins as it isn't a real road - it is a series of roads signposted into a route and joined at intersections). There is one point on/near the South Circ at Forest Hill where, if you close the road, you can gridlock all of south London.
That's enough ranting from me. I warned you it would be long.
* One quarter of all the world's CC-TV cameras are in Britain. Half of those are in London.