17 February 2003: London introduces the Congestion Charge

In a bid to reduce the amount of traffic entering central London, the city unveiled its Congestion Charge on this day in 2003.

Traffic in London has always been a problem. But by the end of the 20th century, the city was drowning under some of the worst congestion in Europe. The average speed in the centre of the capital was just over 10mph. Transport for London, the quango charged with keeping Londoners moving by road and public transport, reckoned that would fall to 7mph unless something was done.

And so a radical scheme was proposed by the then mayor Ken Livingstone: create a zone within the city's central ring road that drivers would be charged a daily fee to enter. The details were thrashed out and the infrastructure put in place, and to much cheering on one side and a lot of grumbling on the other London unveiled its Congestion Charge on this day in 2003. From this day on (except at weekends) anyone driving into the central zone between 7AM and 10PM would be spotted by cameras and be liable for the £5 daily fee (now £15, every day except Christmas Day).

But not quite everyone – buses, taxis and blue-badge holders are exempt, and some people living within the zone are allowed a discount. Many less-polluting cars were also exempt, which led to an explosion in the sale of Toyota Priuses and other hybrid cars. Now, however, even those are deemed too dirty. Only cars which emit 75g of CO2 or less per kilometre and which meet the Euro 6 emissions standard get in for free. But that will change in October 2021.

So was it a success? Private car traffic dropped by 20% after it was introduced, and speeds in the zone rose for a few years. But traffic has since increased, and speeds have dropped back.

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