London Imposes $16/Day Fee on Dirtiest Cars, And Sparks Debate Across the Pond

London smog. Image: Stu Mayhew, CC
London smog. Image: Stu Mayhew, CC

The Big Smoke is about to get a lot less smoky.

London’s decision to push past political opposition and impose appropriate fees on the highest-polluting drivers has some U.S. advocates wondering which of their leaders will have the courage to do the same.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan drew praise from sustainable transportation advocates when he announced last week that he would expand the city’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone to include the neighborhoods beyond the downtown core by 2023, a move which will subject motorists in the roughly 600-square-mile region to a raft of new fees.

In addition to the city’s famous congestion charges, which have been in place since way back in 2003, the drivers of older, dirtier cars will now be charged a flat $16.70 per day to move through the greater London area, and motorists with larger vehicles like diesel freight trucks will pay even more. That policy will effectively remove an estimated 20,000-40,000 vehicles from London’s roads every day — an important step towards achieving the city’s goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2030, which experts say will require a 27-percent reduction in car traffic by the end of the decade.

Public health experts also praised the legislation, which the mayor’s office said will save Londoners $13.6 billion by 2030 in collective healthcare costs to treat diseases caused by car pollution alone.

London’s new plan is not without its detractors, despite significant concessions the administration has already made.

In a release, the mayor’s office noted that it had also considered implementing a “boundary charge,” which would have hit out-of-towners with a fee for entering the greater London area in an automobile, as well an additional “clean air charge” for all but the lowest-emitting vehicles on the road, regardless of their age. (The Ultra Low Emissions Zone currently imposes fees only on cars produced before Europe instituted stronger emissions standards in 2005, and on trucks manufactured before 2014, when standards tightened even more.)

Khan also compromised on a “smart road user charge,” which would have billed drivers a unique per-mile fee based on how much their vehicles pollute, the level of congestion on the roads they travelled, and whether transit was available for their journeys instead. The mayor conceded that the city doesn’t have the capability to implement that elegant solution just yet, but stressed that it will be the best option once the details are ironed out. And until that happens, Khan said, London leaders have a fiscal and ethical obligation to price automobile use as accurately as they can.

“It’s clear the cost of inaction — to our economy, to livelihoods, to the environment and the health of Londoners — would be far greater than the cost of reducing toxic air pollution, tackling the climate emergency and cutting congestion,” said the mayor in remarks about the new initiative. “We have too often seen measures delayed around the world because it’s viewed as being too hard or politically inconvenient, but I’m not willing to put off action we have the ability to implement here in London.”

Khan is right that London isn’t the only city that’s shied away from a full-on vehicle miles travelled tax in light of logistical challenges and community pushback.

Leaders in the San Diego region recently backpedaled on a plan that would have imposed an approximately 4-cent-per-mile fee on all motorists, in part because even the region’s heavily Democratic voters balked at the idea of actually paying more for driving more themselves.

The regional planning authority is still considering a tax on developers who build in locations that encourage excess driving, but advocates say it wouldn’t generate enough revenue to implement the area’s ambitious car-light transportation plan, while detractors say the fee would push up the cost of housing in an area that’s already struggling with affordability and high rates of homelessness. Others argued that San Diego’s transit system today isn’t sufficient to handle the needs of motorists who might be tempted to try transit when driving costs increase, though some had little sympathy for wealthy suburbanites who chose car-dependent lifestyles and have long lobbied for land use policies to match.

Justin Worland of Time Magazine cited San Diego’s battle as a microcosm of the chicken-and-egg problems facing city leaders who try to raise revenue for active and shared transportation by increasing the cost of driving. New taxes and fees, of course, do encourage motorists to get around by other means, but the green modes those travelers might choose instead simply aren’t safe, convenient, or viable right now; infrastructure and service upgrades, though, simply aren’t possible until the money comes in … from those same new revenue sources.

Over time, better pricing can deliver better sustainable transportation options that make car-free life a real option for all residents — but before that can happen, progressive transport leaders are often voted out by angry motorists, and their new policies are reversed.

“As energy prices rise at the same time that many governments are finally getting serious about climate change, lawmakers are facing an inescapable dilemma: effective climate policy requires raising the price of fossil fuels—and, by extension, the price of high-carbon products and services,” Worland wrote. “But raising prices is deeply unpopular among voters…Climate-minded politicians are left with no easy choice. Those who raise prices to enact climate action plans risk being thrown out of office; those who refuse to do so undermine effective policy and invite a world in which unchecked, catastrophic climate change levies a much greater, if more diffuse, cost on communities in the long run.”

So far, Khan remains one of the rare leaders to resist pressure to scale back transportation reforms despite challenging political realities — especially among the subset of low income residents who are dependent on older, polluting cars they can’t afford to replace. He’s committed to increasing the city’s “scrappage” scheme (a sort of British edition of America’s perennial Cash For Clunkers programs), which will help poor drivers trade polluting cars for newer models that won’t be subject to daily charges in the Ultra Low Emissions Zone.

Stateside, economists like Michael Greenstone, the director of the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute, told Worland that steep road user fees could be offset by rebates and other fee adjustments for people who truly need their cars. Others made the case for even broader packages of support services to aide the transition away from excess driving, like free bus passes, or even retraining for jobs that don’t require long commutes.

However they might choose to soften the financial blow to the most vulnerable, Khan is absolutely right that city leaders can’t put off addressing the real costs of car dependence any longer. And the sooner U.S. leaders start, the sooner they can direct those funds to building mobility options that will save everyone money in the long term — not to mention their health, happiness, and the planet itself.

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