TOPIC GUIDE: Congestion Charging

"The London Congestion Charge model should be adopted by all major cities"

PUBLISHED: 01 Aug 2008

AUTHOR: Justine Brian

Share this Topic Guide:

Download topic guide (500k)


On 17 February 2003 London’s first directly elected Mayor, Ken Livingstone, launched the world’s largest congestion charging scheme for motorists. Described at the time as the decision that would ‘make or break’ his mayoral career, the London scheme is the most ambitious of its type ever implemented and has been watched by city authorities throughout the world. A radical departure from traditional road charging, which was a way of directly funding the construction and maintenance of road routes, the London Congestion Charge was explicitly presented as a means of reducing the number of cars travelling into London. Its introduction was controversial, and the practical issue of road congestion was only one part of a broader debate about climate change, city centre pollution, personal mobility and the freedom to travel. Whilst some suggest that the congestion charge has been successful in ‘creat(ing) a truly sustainable transport system’, others say it shows an ‘utter lack of imagination’ in dealing with the modern problems of transport. Should the congestion charge be rolled out to other cities across the UK, or stay parked up in London?

For further reading use the menu bar on the right hand side.


This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

What is the London Congestion Charge?
The charge obliges road vehicles to pay a daily charge (currently £8) for entering the Congestion Charge Zone (CCZ) in central London at certain times, although some vehicles are exempt [Ref: Transport for London]. The perimeter of the zone, and key thoroughfares within it, are monitored by street cameras and roving camera vehicles operating automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) technology. The majority of vehicles are captured on camera and their number plates checked against payment records. Those that have not paid are fined.

Why is traffic congestion a problem?
Supporters of the congestion charge argue that in a city as large as London measures have to be taken to reduce congestion and gridlock; congestion is said to represent a total loss of £20 billion a year to the UK economy [Ref: BBC News]. Public transport, such as buses and trains, carry large numbers of people into the city, whereas cars are often used by single drivers and therefore deemed inefficient in comparison. Some have also said that an incentive to help people change to public transport, or other alternatives such as cycling and walking, has a beneficial effect on the city’s overall environment [Ref: Friends of the Earth]. But critics of the congestion charge suggest that we have misdiagnosed the problem. They say that we have forgotten how much freedom increased car travel has brought, and how profoundly modern transport has improved our lives [Ref: spiked]. Driving, they argue, is being unfairly cast as an act of complacent self-interestedness, rather than a benefit of modern society that should be applauded. Questioning whether the only solution to transport problems is making people travel less, critics have pointed to the fact that the UK has built fewer roads than any other large developed country in the last twenty years. Rather than penalising the public for driving, they argue that the government should be looking for alternative solutions to congestion problems, including building more roads [Ref: Times Online] and changing traffic light flows [Ref: spiked].

Was congestion charging the way forward for London?
Early critics of the congestion charge doubted if it would succeed in reducing the number of cars entering London [Ref: BBC News]. A Transport for London review indicates that car numbers have fallen by 70,000 a day, but while the congestion charge has reduced numbers, the report shows that congestion and travel times are no better than before, due to traffic calming measures, car lane restrictions and an increase in bus and cycle lanes [Ref: Transport for London]. Businesses also claim to have suffered financial losses since its implementation [Ref: Telegraph]. There are other suggestions that the congestion charge has led to unequal access to roads. But supporters of the charge put their argument bluntly: the era of the car is over, and people need to cut back, congestion or not. With cities like London growing year on year and environmental considerations ever more important, the congestion charge is a necessary way of changing behaviour for the greater good [Ref: Guardian]. But critics suggest that there is little evidence to support the ‘benefits’ the charge is purported to bring. With a recent study finding that the congestion charge has had no impact on pollution levels in London, they suggest that this is a moral rather than an evidence-based crusade [Ref: New Scientist].

What is the future of congestion charging?
Major cities across the UK and around the world have looked to London as a template on which to base their own versions of a congestion charge. But whilst some (Stockholm and Durham) have introduced the charge, others (New York, Cambridge and Edinburgh) have rejected it. Supporters of tax-based incentives to change travel habits argue that ultimately they work in shifting the focus of traffic policy from private car owners to pedestrians and other forms of transport [Ref: Guardian]. But critics argue that the London scheme resorts to the age old method of taxing people’s behaviour and is an attack on individual freedom. The question remains: is congestion charging an effective way of dealing with modern transport problems?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


In praise of…London’s congestion charge

Editorial Guardian 7 August 2008

The global transport challenge

John Whitelegg openDemocracy 26 April 2005


London: still stuck in a jam

Nico Macdonald spiked 19 March 2007

Congestion? No problem

Hamish McRae Independent 27 July 2004

Capital Office

Stephen Bayley Independent 6 February 2003


In support of the congestion charge

Cameron Munroe 6 August 2007

The road to nowhere

Mick Hume spiked 1 February 2007

Road pricing is necessary for UK

David Begg 15 May 2005

London Congestion Charge

Laura Blow, Andrew Leicester, Zoe Smith The Institute for Fiscal Studies - Briefing Note No.31 2003


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.


Friends of the Earth v Porsche

Sky News 1 February 2008

This site contains links to websites operated by parties other than Debating Matters. Although we make every effort to ensure links are current, they will sometimes break after Topic Guide publication. If a link does not work, then the publication reference and date should enable you to find an alternate link. If you find a broken link do please send it to the webmaster for review.

© 2005-2023 Debating Matters Competition, boi, Unit 208, Cocoa Studios, The Biscuit Factory, Drummond Road, London, SE16 4DG, UK

Tel +44 (0)20 3176 0827 - | admin login