Londoners May Soon Have to Pay Every Time They Use Their Cars

It’s unlikely the US would follow suit

Key Takeaways

  • London’s mayor wants to charge cars for every mile they drive in the city. 
  • To reach 2030 climate goals, London needs to cut traffic by at least 27%.
  • Reducing reliance on cars requires alternatives like bike lanes and public transit.
An image of traffic congestion on a city street.

Ezequiel Garrido / Unsplash

London needs radical measures to cut air pollution, and the mayor's latest plan is to charge car users for every mile they drive. 

Thanks to England's infamous CCTV saturation, it's easy to track cars automatically by license plate—that's how London's current Congestion Charge works. The same tech could be used to track and bill drivers every time they make a trip. It's a radical move but also somewhat inevitable if London wants to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. But could it work in the US? And why not just ban cars altogether?

"In the UK, 60% of car journeys are between 1 and 5 miles. Nearly 20% of car journeys are less than 1 mile," an e-commerce manager at Urban eBikes' Adam Bastock, told Lifewire via email. 

Cleanup

Mayor Sadiq Khan's proposed new fee would deter driving by making residents think twice about taking their cars. That's possible in London because of an excellent public transport system including the famous Tube, buses, light rail, and even boats. There's also an extensive network of bike lanes. 

"It's not about going 'car-free' but removing all of the unnecessary car journeys so that their essential journey becomes more pleasant," says Bastock. 

A red double-decker bus on a city road.

chan lee / Unsplash

According to figures from the mayor's office, more than a third of car journeys in England's capital could be walked in less than 25 minutes. And more than two-thirds of trips could be done by bike in under 20 minutes. All that's needed, the thinking goes, is a little encouragement to stay out of the car. And once you get into the habit of walking or jumping on your bike, you might decide you don't even need a car at all. I lived in London for several years, long before the good bike lanes arrived, and never needed a car. 

During his time as mayor, Khan has already cleaned up London's air significantly. Between 2000 and 2018, greenhouse emissions from homes have been reduced by 40%, and workplace carbon emissions decreased 57%. But traffic emissions have only been reduced by 7%. Electric cars will help, but the mayor's figures say only 2% of vehicles are electric so far. 

"No amount of comfort in a car can help you overcome the amount of stress when stuck in traffic. But what people rarely talk about is the fact that you are not really stuck in traffic—you are the traffic," Casper Ohm, a research scientist at UK's Water Pollution Guide, told Lifewire via email.

Privacy and ‘Freedom’

Would this radical solution work in the US? There, the car is typically sold as providing freedom, although anyone who sat in traffic at rush hour, watching cyclists sail past in the bike lane, might question that pitch. And without London's dystopian camera network, tracking and billing cars might also be impossible. But the biggest obstacle might be the lack of comprehensive public transport in many US cities, along with the reluctance to use them. 

Red and white train in motion in a train terminal.

Mediocre Studio / Unsplash

Building better transit infrastructure can be politically challenging and expensive, but there are simpler ways to get started. Bike lanes are cheaper than subway lines, for example, and the pandemic has shown that we can remove parking spaces and turn them into restaurant seating areas. 

"Removing parking lots can be a start—an effective way to reduce traffic without having to charge people," insurance specialist Anthony Martin told Lifewire via email. "A complete ban might not work with local businesses when it comes to worrying over losing customers or other roadblocks that can occur with an immediate ban. However, gradually getting people used to having no cars in the city and paving the way to safer ways to allow bikers and pedestrians to walk can be more achievable (at least in areas that will allow this in American cities)."

There's no easy answer, of course, which is why London is going for the difficult answers. Emissions have to come down, and dithering about the right to drive and park in cities won't help. But the tide is, in Europe at least, turning. It's becoming evident that our excessive car use contributes signifcantly to the climate emergency. And if cutting that use also results in more pleasant, more walkable cities, I guess we can live with it.

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