• Congestion fell by almost a third in its first year when the zone was introduced
  • Revolutionary scheme helped to move 10 per cent of car journeys to walking, cycling and public transport, showing the role road user charging schemes can play in making a more liveable and sustainable city 
  • The ULEZ builds on the foundations of the Congestion Charge and has already delivered huge progress in tackling toxic air by targeting the most polluting vehicles
Today (Friday 17 February) marks 20 years of the Congestion Charge enabling economic and sustainable growth in the capital. When the scheme was introduced, it reduced traffic driving into the zone, lessened economically damaging congestion and helped more people travel sustainably.

On introduction, the world-leading Congestion Charge:

  • Limited traffic entering the zone by 18 per cent during weekday charging hours
  • Reduced congestion by 30 per cent
  • Boosted bus travel in central London by 33 per cent
  • Enabled 10 per cent of journeys to switch to walking, cycling and public transport

In addition to these immediate impacts, the Congestion Charge has helped reduce the trend of worsening congestion that other cities have seen. Analysis shows there would have been three million additional journeys by car across London in 2019 without the changes TfL has introduced to encourage more sustainable travel patterns over the last couple of decades, of which the Congestion Charge was a critical first step. This has helped ensure London’s growth has been sustainable as high levels of traffic make deliveries less reliable, delay bus journeys, worsen air pollution, and make it less safe for people walking and cycling. Nearly £5bn was lost to congestion in 2019, a figure that would have been much higher with the three million additional car journeys that, in conjunction with wider transport interventions across London, the Congestion Charge helped avoid.

While the Congestion Charge has been tackling congestion, the growing scientific evidence on the deadly impacts of toxic air pollution created an imperative to move quickly to cut harmful emissions. The Congestion Charge did play a key role in encouraging early take up of less polluting vehicles through the greener vehicle discounts available. As the scientific evidence became clearer and clearer, the discount required progressively greener vehicles, but still around 4,000 Londoners die prematurely each year due to air pollution with dirty air also linked to increase risk of dementia in older people and children growing up with stunted lungs. The Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), was introduced in 2019 and expanded to inner London in 2021, and has seen harmful nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels 46 per cent and 21 per cent lower in central and inner London respectively than they would have been without the scheme.

In August, the ULEZ will be expanded London-wide with five million more people breathing cleaner air. It will be a significant boost for those in the outer boroughs, who suffer disproportionately from poor air quality and will have knock-on benefits to the air quality in the surrounding counties. The larger area will see 23,000 tonnes of CO2 saved in outer London, more than was achieved when the central zone came into operation, with a further reduction of 10 per cent in harmful nitrogen oxides emissions from cars in outer London [and a 16 per cent reduction of  PM2.5 emissions from vehicle exhausts in outer London]. This is on top of the significant reductions the ULEZ has already achieved.

Seb Dance, Deputy Mayor for Transport, said: “The introduction of the Congestion Charge in 2003 – the first of its kind – sparked something of a quiet revolution in transforming the ways that Londoners get around the capital. The steep and immediate impact the charge had on both congestion and the environment paved the way for further transport innovation in London. 20 years later and London is still proving itself to be the trailblazer. The Mayor recently announced that his world-leading Ultra Low Emission Zone will be expanded Londonwide in August, bringing cleaner air to 5 million more people and helping to build a better, greener, fairer London for everyone.”

Christina Calderato, TfL’s Director of Strategy and Policy, said: “The Congestion Charge was world leading when it was introduced 20 years ago and it has been essential in changing the way people travel in the capital. It has resulted in a significant shift away from people using private cars to more environmentally friendly forms of transport. It plays a vital role in supporting the capital’s economy, making central London a more attractive place to visit and the roads run more efficiently. Without it, business and the capital’s economy would suffer more from the costs of congestion.

“In recent years, we have taken bold action to tackle the public health crisis caused by the capital’s toxic air and introduced in the ULEZ. It has been hugely successfully in cutting harmful emissions and helping Londoners breathe cleaner air. With those in outer London suffering disproportionately from the silent killer of pollution, we are expanding the zone to cover all of capital so they can enjoy the benefits of breathing cleaner air at the earliest possible opportunity.”

Anneka Hendrick, Regional Director, CBI London, said: “With the Congestion Charge and the ULEZ, London has already gone further and faster than many other local authority areas and has led the way in emissions reduction. Continued investment, especially in the rollout of charging infrastructure, will further support both individuals and businesses to make the best choices for themselves and the environment.

“It is encouraging to see that the congestion charge has also resulted in an increase in people moving towards more sustainable forms of travel, including walking, cycling and public transport, during the past two decades. Winning the race to net zero for the UK offers benefits to both businesses and society at large, and the congestion charge is playing a pivotal role in reducing emissions across the capital – improving air quality for millions.”

James Cleeton, Sustrans London Director, said: “The Congestion Charge was a ground breaking scheme when it was introduced 20 years ago. It delivered dramatic reductions in traffic levels and congestion overnight, and showed that we don’t just need to accept congestion, pollution, and roads dominated by traffic as the inevitable consequence of modern life. What was key to the success of the Congestion Charge was the provision of high quality, viable alternatives to driving to work in central London that accompanied the introduction of the scheme – more buses and better tubes, and more recently quality cycle routes and wider pavements. That’s why the Congestion Charge is so much more than just a charging scheme – it has supported a positive vision of a healthier, happier city.”

Dr Ashok Sinha, Chief Executive at London Cycling Campaign, said: “The Congestion Charge has successfully shown that more people walk and cycle on streets where road danger is lowered by reducing motor traffic, especially where the opportunity is taken to widen pavements and introduce protected cycle tracks. This underlines the importance of introducing smart and fair road user charging across London, to promote active travel, public transport and car sharing. By reducing traffic and providing convenient, affordable alternative options to car journeys, we can make London a healthier and less congested city, and reduce air pollution and carbon emissions.”

Adam Tyndall, Programme Director of Transport at BusinessLDN, said: “For the last twenty years, cities around the world have turned to London for inspiration after the introduction of the Congestion Charge reduced delays on central London roads by 30 per cent.

“But the zone still only covers 1.3 per cent of the capital, and across Greater London, congestion costs the economy £5 billion each year – even without the extra 2 million people projected to boost London’s population by the middle of the century.”

“If London’s roads are going to keep moving, we need to double down on the things that work: better public transport, more active travel, and disincentivising unnecessary motor vehicle journeys.”

To help people make the green transition ahead of the ULEZ being expand London-wide, the Mayor has launched a £110 million scrappage scheme. It will support Londoners on lower incomes, disabled Londoners, charities, sole traders and business with 10 or fewer employees to replace or retrofit their old, polluting vehicles. To accompany the scrappage scheme there are a host of ULEZ support offers from businesses, including additional exclusive offers for successful applicants of the scrappage scheme. This will enable Londoners to benefit from discounts on subscriptions, rentals and purchases of bicycles, e-bikes, cargo bikes, cars and vans from companies including Brompton, Enterprise and Santander Cycles.

Money raised from the Congestion Charge has been ploughed into helping Londoners get from A to B by more environmentally friendly ways, with increases in buses and reallocation of road space helping to make London a more liveable and efficient city. This has delivered better facilities for people walking and cycling, like protected cycle lanes, which has seen a growth of those talking to two wheels of 137 per cent since the start of the millennium. Sustainable travel choices are also more efficient ways of people getting to their destination, with a bus carrying up to 85 times more passengers than a car and bikes moving a greater number of people within the same space than those on four wheels.

When TfL consulted on expanding the ULEZ London-wide it also asked people for their views to help shape the future of road user charging in the capital to tackle the triple challenges of the climate emergency, toxic air pollution and traffic congestion. TfL is at an early stage in its thinking on how it could replace existing road user charging such as Congestion Charge and ULEZ, with a simple and fair scheme for customers. The technology to implement such a scheme in a complex city like London is still many years away and will be factored into TfL’s long-term planning. Since TfL pioneered the Congestion Charge 20 years ago, cities around the world have visited to learn more about the scheme. TfL is continuing to lead the way by innovating and using technology to deal with the transport challenges faced by large urban centres.