London Tightens Congestion Charge Limits; Only Plug-Ins To Be Free?

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Car entering London's Congestion Charge zone [Image: Flickr user jovike]

Car entering London's Congestion Charge zone [Image: Flickr user jovike]

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Imagine if you were being charged tens of dollars to drive into the center of your home city each day.

Around Europe, many drivers already face such a charge. London is one such city, and residents have been paying to enter the center of the capital since 2003.

Low-emission vehicles have commonly been exempt--but new plans being drawn up by Transport for London (TfL) could change that later this year.

So what is it?

Called the Congestion Charge, London's scheme is little more than a vehicle tax. Its real purpose isn't to ease congestion, but rather reduce pollution in the city by discouraging drivers from driving within the zone.

Currently, the charge to enter London is just under $16 per day, meaning those who regularly need to travel into the center, and don't use London's buses, taxis or tube, can pay thousands of dollars per year.

Several models currently on sale in the UK are exempt from the charge, which doesn't apply to vehicles emitting under 100 grams per kilometer of carbon dioxide.

Proposed changes

Transport for London is currently asking residents to submit their views on proposed changes to the existing system.

These changes include a drop of the exemption limit, from 100 g/m CO2 down to just 75 g/km. That effectively rules out exemption for everything except plug-in vehicles--a Toyota Prius emits 89 g/km under European fuel efficiency testing. The cleanest non-plugin car currently on sale, the Toyota Yaris Hybrid, puts out only 79 g/km, just missing the new target.

Plug-in cars, on the other hand, comfortably dip under the limit. A plug-in Prius is rated at only 49 g/km, a Chevy Volt just 27 g/km.

Mixed messages

On the face of it, encouraging people into ever-greener vehicles is a good thing. However, the proposed limit fails to take account of certain factors.

The first is that, under the old system, thousands of drivers moved into cleaner, better-mpg cars in order to benefit from the fee exemption. Many of these were quite accessible in terms of cost, where many plug-ins are not.

With the sub-100 g/km cars no longer incentivised, and plug-ins out of reach for many, there's little to stop drivers making their next car a less efficient one. If they can't benefit from charge exemption, it doesn't really matter whether the car they subsequently choose gets 76 g/km or over 100.

As some consolation, owners of existing sub-100 g/km cars would get an extra two years of exemption--but after that, they'd pay the same $16 as everyone else.

Cutting diesel pollution

TfL says its plans are aimed at cutting diesel pollution, as low-CO2 diesels have become increasingly common on London's roads, thanks to the incentives.

It states that a Euro 4-standard diesel emits 22 times the particulate matter of the typical gasoline car--neglecting to mention that currently, exempt diesels must meet Euro 5 standards, which are five times cleaner.

That's in contrast to the taxis and buses responsible for pumping out tonnes of diesel particulate matter into London's air, doing far more damage than cars, which get cleaner every year.

The typical London black cab only has to meet Euro 3 standards--twice the particulate matter of Euro 4, ten times that of Euro 5, and over forty times that of a Euro 5 gasoline vehicle. They also emit vastly more nitrogen oxides--a large cause of smog.

These vehicles also spend all day on London's roads, rather than the few hours of the typical car, which remains parked for most of the day.

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Comments (11)
  1. Might have mentioned that there is actually a £5,000 grand for buyers of ultra low emission vehicles in the UK so plug-ins aren't really that financially inaccessible for London residents. Especially considering the arrival of more affordable models like Smart EV, and the price drop of the Nissan Leaf. Really practical EVs like Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV will also make for a relatively affordable all round alternative for family cars. Renault Zoe would actually be dirt cheap if it qualified for the grant but it might not since it's a battery lease deal.

    Cabs may get preferential treatment but at the end of the day it's a congestion charge and cabs do help reduce congestion.

  2. There is indeed a grant, but there's still rather a large difference in the price of plug-in vehicles to conventionally-fueled ones. The smart electric drive gets closest to affordable at the moment, at £15,395 ($24,300), or £12,275 ($19,400) for those paying an $87 monthly battery rental (both figures after the £5k grant), but even in the UK not everyone wants a smart fortwo!

    Also worth noting that not all vehicles stay within city limits, unlike cabs and buses.

  3. I don't think it's a bad idea but if the people have to comply so should public transport.

  4. Don't forget, people will still by small efficient vehicles, because they are cheaper to buy and to fuel. At the moment, there is little or no incentive to buy an electric car, as they cost a lot more and only get the same benefits as a Fiat 500 (cost of fuel excepted).

  5. Thanks for the comment James - Of course, I wasn't implying that everyone would ditch their sub-100g/km cars for gas-guzzlers, but it now no longer matters whether their next car isn't quite as efficient - at the efficient end of the scale, differences between cars are fairly minimal, and London traffic can often throw a wrench in the works of the most economical cars as it is...

  6. Surely the point is, with the new rules, their next car will have to be a BEV, if they want to keep the same benefits. And with quick chargers around the outskirts for those inevitable longer trips... Maybe electric cars have got a future in the UK after all.

  7. It's worth noting that I was in London yesterday and saw not a single 'current day' plug-in car on the road. I did see 10 electric cars, but they were all ones no-longer made, like the G-Wiz (Reva) and early Smart ForTwo ED Prototype.

  8. Indeed - Though I suspect that on its own, a sub-75g/km zero C-charge incentive isn't quite enough to get Joe Average into plug-ins.

    And of course, the other thing is that there are no easily-accessible sub-75 cars out there, unlike sub-100 cars. It'd make more sense trying to curb the *really* dirty stuff than penalising the people who've already gone out and bought relatively clean vehicles.

  9. Well, in 2 years of time many of the models ahich are in range of 75 to 100 g/km of CO2 will improve and bring their vehicle emission below 75 g/km of CO2. I dont think it is bad thing..actually it is better. Believe me models like Toyota Prius will vring their emissions below 75 g/km of CO2 in next 2 years, because they cannot afford a big loss of potential market...but they should seriously think about making Taxi Fleet green...

  10. Good article. It seems that both efforts to reduce vehicle pollution should be conducted in London:

    1) Implement the new under 75 program, maybe wait till 2015 for implementation, but keep a niche group at 75 - 100 for those vehicles so they could pay half or even a quarter of the daily $16 city entrance fee.
    2) Give incentives for the purchase of new, safer, and very fuel efficient taxis, buses, government vehicles, etc.
    3) How 'bout increasing the registration costs for fuel guzzlers too?

  11. Whether you are penalizing gas or incentvizing electrics it still gets the point across. If over previous exemptionsare at issue, then create a tiered rate of say $8 for current qualifying hybrids toexpire in say 5 years. This should allow EVs to reach mass market pricing and be time for anyone who bought a hybrid to be looking at a new vehicle anyway

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