Reading Time: 6 minutes

London’s transport infrastructure has been hit by waves of industrial action over the last few weeks.

At the start of the month, a second 24-hour walkout by staff on the London Underground left buses and trains overcrowded and, as a result, many commuters went to work in their cars.

Similarly, bus drivers in south London went on a 48-hour strike halting services on 30 of the capital’s busiest bus routes across Croydon, Thornton Heath, Streatham, and Brixton.

These disruptions, of course, are only temporary but they do demonstrate a fragility in London’s transport system and the persistent reliance on cars to get around. This reliance remains despite continued efforts by successive London Mayors to reduce the city’s reliance on private vehicles. 

Are London’s congestion charge and low-emissions zones simply in vain? And what can other cities learn from the British capital?

Carrots and Sticks

“There should be careful consideration by cities as to whether they are punishing drivers of high-polluting vehicles or rewarding drivers of lower-emitting ones,” says Andy Marchant, Traffic Expert at TomTom.

London has two low-emissions zones. The first, larger Low-Emissions Zone (LEZ) was introduced in 2008 and targets large commercial vehicles and lorries that weigh more than 3.5 tonnes. 

The newer, smaller zone had been under consideration since as early as 2014 when current British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was the Mayor. However, when it was introduced in 2019 as the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) by current mayor Sadiq Khan, it covered the same small area of central London that the congestion charge still does.

In October last year, ULEZ was expanded to cover the area within London’s north and south circular roads. In the first month since the controversial expansion, the number of non-compliant cars that venture into the zone daily has dropped from 127,000 to 80,000.

Ulez Boundary Map

However, this means that – in theory at least – Transport for London is generating £1 million every single day.  

“These schemes should not be seen by cities as a chance to cash in on climate change,” says Marchant. “The premise of low emission zones is that it encourages drivers to invest in cleaner methods of transportation, be that buying an electric vehicle or using alternate methods to get around, like taking public transport, cycling, or using an e-scooter.”

Of course, for many areas in London’s suburbs, there are precious few mobility options for getting around.

You might be lucky enough to find an e-bike or e-scooter one day but, without the docking stations found in London’s more central areas, the chances of finding another one the next day are slim.

Relying on trains and already crowded buses might not get you to work on time, either – particularly if you work outside the regular 9-5 pattern.

“These zones will reduce the number of drivers making the journey, but not enough that we will see a considerable impact on peak journey times,” explains Marchant.

“After London’s recent expansion of its ULEZ rolled out, our data showed that there was little change in the amount of congestion on the roads.”

And here lies a crucial point of difference. Taking cars off London’s streets might seem like an easy solution to both congestion and air pollution. However, given that many cars, lorries, vans, bikes, taxis, and buses have to share the same few thoroughfares every day – think about south London’s Old Kent Road, for example – the reality is more complex.

“In fact, traffic hit an all-time high in London a few weeks ago because of the RMT Union strikes, showing us that when disruption strikes, people immediately turn to the car as their preferred method of transportation,” explains Marchant.

The End of the Road

Of course, while low-emissions zones are important for reducing air pollution, they do not necessarily solve the secondary problem of congestion. 

“In cities that don’t take such a hard stance against combustion engine vehicles, low-emissions zones will likely become less important as the volume of electric vehicles increases naturally in line with other regulations that ban the sale of combustion engine vehicles. When this happens, the challenge for city planners will change,” says Marchant.

“When EVs become the norm, there won’t be any emissions-based restrictions preventing them from entering cities. There’s the possibility that this will lead to an increase in inner-city congestion, even if it is zero-tailpipe emissions. It’s an issue that shouldn’t be overlooked.”

But how do cities move forward?

“If that becomes the case, we can expect things like London’s Congestion Zone charge to take the place of LEZ as being the main conversation around influencing the movement of traffic in our cities,” explains Marchant.

“Other cities will surely follow with more stringent congestion charges.”

However, it’s important to remember that not all journeys in low-emissions zones are created equal. Some drivers might head into the zone in the morning, park their car at work, and drive back out in the evening. Others might only have to pop into the zone for an hour or so to do their weekly grocery shop. 

London Congestion

But delivery and ride-hailing drivers can spend hours in the zone at a time – polluting and clogging up the roads whilst still being charged the same as a regular driver.

“The last-mile sector is experiencing a massive transformation driven by increasing customer requirements who demand more immediate or same-day deliveries and return options,” says Marchant.

“This has caused a massive uptick in the amount of congestion on the roads during the day, seemingly altering travel patterns as we know it.”

Fortunately, there is some help at hand.

“Until recently, it’s been challenging to improve transport fleet efficiency,” explains Marchant.

“Without specialised knowledge or access to the right location technology, it is challenging to calculate routes based on myriad factors, such as vehicle size, axle weight and efficiency while accelerating or decelerating. Transport companies also haven’t had easy access to live traffic data to help avoid heavy traffic and accidents.

“Now, with modern mapping and routing APIs, any company that can hire software developers, or purchase a product incorporating these tools, can optimise their operations with environmental impact in mind.”

The Future of Urban Driving

Schemes similar to London’s LEZ and ULEZ are becoming increasingly popular both in the rest of Britain’s cities and around the world.

Manchester, for instance, was supposed to be launching its own version but this has been delayed until July due to political wrangling between the city’s Labour Mayor Andy Burnham and Britain’s Conservative central government. 

But, is a future in which nobody drives in urban centres realistic? And, is it even desirable?

“Undoubtedly, the pandemic accelerated changes in mobility behaviour and choices that have been considered for years,” says Marchant.

“2021 was the year where changes in our working habits were solidified: the home office is becoming a standard for many companies, teleconferences have replaced physical meetings and flexible work hours allow many commuters to avoid and offset their rush hours. As a consequence, peak hours have shifted or decreased in more than 208 out of 404 cities, according to the TomTom Traffic Index.”

Alternative methods are becoming popular in urban environments but this will not solve the entire problem. 

“New mobility usages are gaining popularity, e-scooter and bicycle use is increasing, supported by the creation of kilometres of cycle lanes in many cities,” says Marchant.

“However, while micro-mobility can support inner-city mobility, most traffic pain points stem from inter-urban movement.”

For Marchant, though, there is a potential opportunity with the switch away from traditional ICE vehicles. 

“Electric, self-driving cars could radically change the way that cities are laid out by freeing up space. Self-driving cars communicating with each other through a wireless network would be able to pass each other with centimetre precision. You may be able to fit four lanes in where you previously had three. Traffic lights will be no longer needed. Cars will communicate via maps and will figure out right of way at crossings in a different way,” he explains.

“It is connected vehicle data that will ensure new developments in smarter logistics and smarter cities. Without the connected car, drivers will not see any new developments in mobility.”

Urban driving, regardless of what happens with EVs and congestion charging zones, will not disappear overnight. But, potentially, with new modes of transport emerging every day, there is a real possibility to complete reshape our cities’ streets.

Leave a Comment