It's 10 years since the London congestion charge was introduced. But the question now is if it was radical enough, says Adam Bienkov
It’s easy to forget just how controversial the congestion charge was 10 years ago.
When Ken Livingstone first suggested charging people to drive into central London, it was widely seen as political suicide.
Everyone from the Labour Party to the right-wing press predicted that it would be a career-ending catastrophe.
At the first mayoral election Labour campaigned against Ken with the slogan "New Labour, new London, no congestion charge."
Even Ken’s own advisers were close to mutiny, warning him that the charge would become the new "poll tax."
But while in public Livingstone’s opponents condemned him, in private many secretly hoped that the scheme would work.
Despite the outrage, charging for road space was not then a new, or even a particularly radical political idea.
Thatcherite economist and adviser to Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman, first dreamt up “electronic road pricing” over 60 years ago.
The question now is not whether the congestion charge was too radical, but whether it was radical enough
Both Labour and Conservative governments had considered introducing a charge in London for decades.
The only thing that was radical about the congestion charge was that a politician had finally plucked up the courage to try it.
On the day of the launch The Sun trailed Ken with a reporter in a snail costume, and quoted Smithfield Market traders who said that "Livingstone needs shooting."
But despite all of the predictions, the charge was an immediate success. Overnight the number of cars entering central London was cut by a third with 18% fewer vehicles overall.
Ten years later, just 2% of all journeys into central London are now made by car.
The charge has contributed almost a billion pounds towards public transport and London is now the only part of the country where car ownership is falling.
But while Ken was a lone voice 10 years ago, none of the major political parties still say they would get rid of it.
The question now is not whether the congestion charge was too radical, but whether it was radical enough.
Despite cutting vehicle numbers, the charge has failed to do what it actually set out to: cut congestion.
Big increases in road works, have reduced available road space, meaning that congestion is now as bad as it ever was.
Efforts by Boris Johnson to “smooth the traffic flow” have so far had little or no effect.
The UK’s population is rising, and there is no space in our cities to build major new roads.
Proposals to charge drivers by the mile have been kicking around for decades.
But with even slight petrol price rises hugely controversial, it would take an incredibly brave politician to bring such a scheme in.
The lesson from the congestion charge is that such political bravery can sometimes pay off.
- Adam Bienkov is a freelance journalist and political blogger