Traffic in London.
Olivia Harris/Reuters

Is this the end of the (free) road for London’s cars?

The first transit strategy from London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s administration has barely been out two days, and already British media are asking if it signals the death knell of private cars in the city.

That might be pushing it, but London’s transit plans certainly see motor vehicles taking an ever-decreasing role. By 2041, the city wants 80 percent of all journeys to be conducted by public transit, by bike or on foot. The inner city would be declared an ultra-low-emissions zone. Given the fairly sizeable share this sector already enjoys in London—64 percent of all journey today—that seems manageable. Next year the city will also be launching Crossrail, a major new heavy rail commuter service tunnelled beneath its core, with a second possible line arriving in 2033. Add in the promises of better bike highways and bike parking and the goal looks eminently manageable.

The carrot of better public transit and bike infrastructure could nevertheless come attached to a pretty big stick: London is considering charging private drivers to use the road. This wouldn't be a central congestion charge—London has had one of those in place since 2003. Instead, it would charge any private car to use to any road in the city, imagining it as a pay-per-mile charge that spreads across the whole municipal area.

The vital word here, however, is “considering.” London’s City Hall is not vowing to introduce such a scheme. Instead it’s probably just testing the waters, floating the idea to gauge the extent of the backlash, and calculate if it is manageable and acceptable to citizens. So is it at all feasible?

The answer is both yes and no. Politically, Khan is in an unusually good position to push through bold and challenging new policies right now.  He won last year’s mayoral election comfortably, scoring 13.6 percent more than his Conservative Party rival in the second round run-off. Since then, he has maintained his popularity as a spokesperson for London, and in this month’s national elections, London swung even further toward the Labour Party, of which Khan is a representative. While taking the electorate for granted could be fatal, the mayor has room to maneuver, perhaps more than he will ever have again in his tenure.

But despite his high profile, Khan is, like all London’s mayors to date, held back by a lack of power. He leads the city on transit policy, but doesn’t necessarily control all aspects of its network. A massive project such as Crossrail, for example, comes from the national budget, rather than the city’s budget, while his attempts to take over a dysfunctional rail company serving London’s suburbs and ex-urbs was rebuffed by central government. It’s London’s boroughs, meanwhile, who own 90 percent of the city’s road space. They’d need to agree to any attempts to charge for their use, obviously—an agreement that could be hard to broker in Conservative Party-held outer boroughs whose citizens live in less dense, more car-dependent neighborhoods. London may be thinking about ubiquitous road pricing, but that doesn’t mean the goal is necessarily in sight.

The most important aspect of the new plan is probably to start a conversation that the city needs. London’s congestion charge may have been ground-breaking on its induction, but congestion has recently surpassed the levels it had reached before the charge was introduced. Thanks to changing transit patterns, private car numbers have fallen in the inner city, only to be replaced by Ubers and delivery vans. Some form of surge pricing could do much to reduce both pollution and congestion, but it could prove deeply unpopular even in a city where car dependence is already dropping. To gauge how far they can go, the city will keep its ears pricked for public reaction.

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