London Congestion Charge

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Congestion Charge logoFor many centuries, right through to the present day, London's traffic problems have been the stuff of legend. Cars, delivery vans and buses form a slow-moving swamp of vehicles down most of the main streets for most of the day, and have for decades. It's no surprise that, over the years, there have been all sorts of new and innovative proposals to clean up the mess.

Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London from 2000 to 2008, caused a political storm when he declared that he was going to charge motorists for something that has always been free to them — the roads. Introduced in 2003, modified in 2007 and 2011, the Congestion Charge Zone has remained controversial ever since.

What is the Congestion Charge?

Traffic congestion in London. Oh dear.The capital's traffic problems were not new when the motor car was invented. Even in the nineteenth century horse-drawn traffic choked its streets. There have been endless ideas and proposals to fix it ever since, but none have ever got very far or had much success. From the 1930s to the 1970s, proposals were made for new ring roads, dual carriageways, motorways, multi-level interchanges and tunnels to sort out the traffic, but they all faltered when faced with public opposition to the damage and destruction they would cause across the city.

With no way to build out of the problem, the traffic jams remained. A different kind of solution was proposed in the late 1990s by Ken Livingstone, a former leader of the Greater London Council in the 1980s who had been known for irritating the Conservative government with his socialist politics. He reputedly said "I hate cars...if I ever get any power again, I'll ban the lot", which may or may not be true, but he is certainly known for pursuing policies that promote and subsidise public transport and sideline private traffic.

His solution to the traffic problem — which he was able to pursue after his election as an independent London Mayor in 2000 — was to impose a financial penalty on traffic in Central London, with the intention that it would be avoided by anyone not on truly essential business there, freeing up space for public transport and making the place more pleasant for pedestrians.

Congestion Charge zone map. Click to enlarge
The Congestion Charge zone from January 2011, shown here in pink. Click to enlarge

The Congestion Charge began operation on 17 February 2003 and was extended west to cover Kensington and Chelsea on 19 February 2007.

Ken Livingstone was succeeded as Mayor of London by Boris Johnson in 2008, who cancelled Livingstone's plans to link Congestion Charge pricing to vehicle emissions, and went on to scrap the western extension to the zone, returning it to its original boundaries, as shown above. There are no plans, however, to scrap the original zone, and it looks set to remain a permanent feature of London's streets.

Where and when does it operate?

Congestion Charge signThe Congestion Charge zone covers Central London, including most parts of Westminster and the City of London. With certain exceptions, it encompasses the whole area within the Inner Ring Road, which forms its boundary and provides a way for through traffic to avoid it. The zone is marked by road signs and markings featuring a red disc containing a white "C". The roads forming the zone boundary are free to use.

The Congestion Charge operates Monday to Friday between 7am and 6pm, though it is occasionally suspended in exceptional circumstances at the discretion of the Mayor. It does not apply at weekends, on public holidays and in the period between Christmas Day and New Year's Day.

Vehicles entering the zone during the hours of operation are liable to pay a charge, and failure to pay the charge can result in steep fines or prosecution. The scheme applies to foreign-registered vehicles as well as British ones.

How does it work?

Direction signDirection signs
Travelling around London, every entrance to the Congestion Charge zone is marked unambiguously on direction signs on all surrounding roads. The red circular "C" symbol is used to indicate roads that lead into the zone.

A white version of the symbol is painted on the road in traffic lanes that lead to the Congestion Charge zone, and red-and-white symbols are painted across the road at entry points.

Signage for the Inner Ring Road was reinforced in 2003 and motorists wishing to avoid the charge should follow "Ring Road" wherever possible to stay outside the zone.

Vehicle registration plates are read automatically and processed at the control centre. The details are then checked against Transport for London's database. Images of exempt vehicles and those that have already paid the charge are discarded immediately. The rest are stored until a payment has been made.

There are also further cameras placed at strategic points throughout the zone to reduce the chances that vehicles will enter and go unnoticed. Mobile camera vans are also used at undisclosed locations.

The charge can be paid online, by phone, by text message, by post, or using TfL's "CC AutoPay" scheme. CC AutoPay users are entitled to a discount.

What do I pay?

The charge is dependent on the type of vehicle, the time it is paid and the method of payment.

Charges were correct at October 2014.

Charge Method of payment Timescale
£10.50 CC AutoPay users only Charge is payable for every day the motorist enters the zone and is billed monthly.
£11.50 Phone, text message or post Paid in advance or paid before midnight on the day the charge is due
£14.00 Phone, text message or post Paid after the day the charge was due, but before midnight on the next day the charge operates. For example, if the charge is due on a Friday, it must be paid by midnight the following Monday.

What happens if I don't pay?

The charge can be paid at the normal rate until midnight on the day it was incurred (or, if it was incurred on a Friday, until midnight on Sunday evening). It can be paid until midnight on the following day at the increased cost of £14.

If the charge has not been paid after that time the registered keeper of the vehicle is sent a Penalty Charge Notice and is liable for a fine of up to £130. If the charge is then paid within 14 days it is discounted to £65.

In the event of non-payment, the black-and-white image of the car showing its registration number is stored for prosecution and possible court case, and the image from the colour camera is also stored to provide corroborative evidence (such as the colour and make of the car) to prove the vehicle was correctly identified.

It is thought that the cameras can be avoided if a vehicle changes lanes as it passes through one of the camera sites — confusing the system by not being in any particular lane at the point the cameras would register it — or by tailgating large vehicles in order to hide the registration plate. However, given the number of cameras in the system and the volumes of traffic at the time the charge is in operation, pulling off such a maneouvre reliably at every camera site would be almost impossible, and probably not worth the trouble for a £10.50 charge anyway.

Congestion Charge road marking

Who is exempt?

Various exceptions and exemptions are permitted by Transport for London, which are detailed below (correct at November 2009).

Charge Types of vehicle Action necessary
  • Motorbikes, mopeds and bicycles
  • Black cabs and other minicabs
  • Emergency services and tax-exempt NHS vehicles
  • Other tax-exempt vehicles used by the disabled
  • TfL buses and other vehicles in the tax class "Buses"
  • Buses from other EU states
  • HM Coastguard and Port Authority vehicles
  • Vehicles for London Boroughs and Royal Parks
  • The armed forces
Register with TfL
  • Electric, alternative fuel and dual-fuel vehicles
  • Vehicles below 3.5 tonnes gross weight that emit 75g/km of CO2 and meet the Euro 5 standard for air quality
  • Vehicles with 9 or more seats that are not licenced as a bus
  • Roadside recovery vehicles and vehicles operated by accredited breakdown organisations
  • Blue Badge holders, including those who do not own a vehicle or drive themselves
  • Motor tricycles less than 1m wide and 2m long
Annual registration with TfL, incurring a £10 fee
  • Residents living within the Congestion Charge zone or immediately adjacent to it, at the discretion of Transport for London
Annual registration with TfL, incurring a £10 fee

Charging zone ends!

This is not the official Congestion Charge website.

For up-to-date information, and to make enquiries about the scheme, visit Transport for London.

With thanks to Rob Fairhead for information on this page.