What New Yorkers Can Learn From London’s Congestion Pricing

New York’s governor is refusing to implement congestion pricing out of fear of alienating businesses and suburban voters. But in London, tying congestion pricing to a massive expansion of public transit has built enduring cross-class support for it.

People exit the London Underground on January 18, 2024, in London, United Kingdom. (Mike Kemp / In Pictures via Getty Images)

At the start of June, New York governor Kathy Hochul made an about-turn on the promised congestion pricing scheme that had been intended for rollout later the same month, delaying it “indefinitely.” Despite the hard-won agreement of city officials, residents, and business groups, she cited the vulnerability of New York businesses as a reason for her reversal.

Perhaps more than any other congestion pricing plan, New York’s “congestion relief zone” would have directly tied toll revenues to improvements to the suburban reaches of its mass transit systems. Indeed, the funding arrangements for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) have placed an increasing burden on state authorities. This has lent urgency to calls to get the program ready for its June launch.

Hochul’s U-turn will significantly set back the cause of improving air quality and urban space in New York, losing a moment of political consensus that will be challenging to replicate. More pressingly, it leaves a billion-dollar-plus hole in the MTA’s annual budget as aging trains and infrastructure hit reliability and capacity limits. Hochul suggested following questioning that a levy on New York City businesses could make up the shortfall – businesses that she had just claimed would be hard-hit by the congestion charge. It is reasonable to assume, with the November election approaching fast, that her decision was largely motivated by electoral considerations, rather than any practical need for delay.

Her decision is made even more indefensible by the fact that the arguments against congestion pricing rely on mistaken assumptions. Opponents of congestion pricing often fixate on the potentially regressive impacts it will have on low-income city dwellers. Hochul herself implored New Yorkers to “be real: A $15 charge may not seem like a lot to someone who has the means, but it can break the budget of a hard-working middle-class household.” But this claim is itself out of touch with reality. Across most of the world, car ownership generally correlates with higher income. This is true in the UK, where less than half of households own cars, but also in New York, where the average income of households with vehicles is almost twice that of those without.

New York is far from the first city to realize that restricting car traffic requires active controls. Back in 1975, Singapore became the first city to introduce congestion pricing. But by the turn of the millennium, the city was joined by four others: London, Stockholm, Milan, and Gothenburg. In each case, charges have succeeded in reducing congestion as well as pollution and the average cost of cross-city travel.

Despite the success of these schemes in other cities, congestion pricing remains deeply contentious in New York. Why? London’s regime of congestion pricing, introduced by the left-wing Labour Party major Ken Livingstone in 2003, offers some answers to these questions. There, congestion pricing helped to make the city more livable, but only in combination with a broad wave of reforms aimed at expanding the size of the city and making urban centers accessible to all inhabitants.

Study after study has shown that congestion pricing alone is a blunt tool when attempting to deal with overcrowded roads. A 2022 Lund University analysis of this topic found that, while some measures are significantly more effective than others at targeting congestion, none can stand alone. Congestion pricing can only be effectively deployed as part of a systemic, strategic approach to considering urban mobility for both people and commerce.

London’s congestion charge, which has been in place for over two decades, was not introduced in isolation. The charge coincided with a massive expansion of public service infrastructure. In 2003, improvements and extensions to the Underground and Docklands Light Railway were paired with enhancements to bus services across the Greater London area. Traffic-calming measures within the city center — narrower streets, chicanes, and additional bus lanes – also applied a downward pressure on the average speed of private vehicles. Oyster, London’s pay-as-you-go smart card system, was also introduced in 2003, shortly after the congestion charge, making it much easier for commuters to integrate journeys using public transit.

These changes have led directly to the shift of commuters away from cars. In 2000, around half of journeys were made by private car. Today, the figure is close to one-third. Perhaps most importantly, around a third of trips are now made on foot, a likely effect of quieter and more pedestrian-friendly roads.

All of these changes were coordinated through the city’s devolved body Transport for London (TfL), under the jurisdiction of the capital’s elected mayor. More than any other authority in the UK, including the national government, TfL chooses to take a long-term, strategic view, completing ambitious infrastructure projects like the recent Elizabeth Line connecting the city’s core and suburbs. TfL regularly announces its future plans, which can be viewed online as a mapped vision of the future network that will change the spatial layout of the city.

Given that London’s public transit system has made the city more livable for its residents, rich and poor, what should be made of Hochul’s supposed reasoning for withdrawing from NYC’s scheme? Despite the flimsiness of Hochul’s case against congestion pricing, it is true that without reform to the MTA congestion pricing would have been limited in its ability to improve the lives of average New Yorkers. But other claims, such as that congestion charging will have a negative impact on business, a refrain often repeated by critics, rely on circular reasoning. It is because we have built our urban environments over the last hundred years to prioritize private car traffic above all else that changes to the way we move around in cities are potentially harmful to workers. But these criticisms do point to the limitations of the plans that Hochul ended up rejecting at the last minute.

Congestion pricing alone will do little to counteract the fact that many people’s jobs rely on inefficient private transit. The benefits of congestion pricing can only really be unlocked through investment in changes to the urban layout of cities and expansion of other forms of public transit — a systemic view has to be taken. But London shows that achieving this aim is not impossible and that these reforms, once implemented, create a deep-seated sense of investment in local government and public transit.

Thanks to the perceived poor state of the alternatives to driving, congestion pricing remains broadly unpopular among residents of New York’s suburbs, with recent polling suggesting as much as two-thirds of people are against it. London shows how to overcome this: politicians must be bold. When it comes to proven but potentially unpopular changes, trials and pilots are far superior to consultations, which can be slow, expensive, and vulnerable to hijacking by opposition groups. People, rich and poor, quickly become used to the benefits that expanded public transit and well-designed traffic-reduction measures unlock, and within a remarkably short time will fight to retain them.

In London, only a small minority of reactionaries would now reverse the congestion charge, which has contributed to a significant shift away from private car traffic in favor of walking, cycling, and public transit. Central London is a happier, healthier, safer place to be for everyone as a result of the charge. At the same time, the outer reaches of London continue to be better fed by public transit, with the success of the newly built Elizabeth Line allowing plans for further new infrastructure to be accelerated. As part of the total-system improvement in sustainable mobility across London, congestion charging combined with investment in transit has helped to create a cross-class coalition in favor of maintaining public infrastructure. This could also happen in New York.