Is congestion charging right for Oxford?

Posted: 06/11/2017

Is congestion charging right for Oxford?

The county’s plans are raising serious questions among business people

Matthew Arnold called Oxford a ‘home of lost causes’. Managing traffic ranks fairly high on that list.

Transport chiefs have tried new roundabouts and park and ride schemes, there was even a short-lived attempt at pedicab rickshaws to shift people out of their cars. But the situation is still as stagnant as the A34 on a Monday morning.

Enter congestion charging, the latest idea from Oxfordshire County Council. The local authority recently wrote to over 1,500 business people to ask for help in shaping proposals for a more ambitious transport infrastructure that would be paid for, in part, by revenues from congestion charging and a workplace parking levy.

The ideas have not proved popular with some business people who fear congestion charging will drive companies from the city. A congestion charge penalises companies far more than residents as employees, suppliers and customers will face a fee to travel into the city.

It is not just city-based businesses that will be affected. Any company with employees that travel by car or that need to have suppliers or customers drive into the city could be impacted.

One company that recently moved to Oxford said that if they knew the city was considering congestion charging, they would have gone elsewhere. Others have suggested that businesses are soft targets for taxation because they will make less of an objection than individuals hit with a rise in council tax.

“What gets ignored is that increased tax is hobbling businesses, reducing their success, reducing employment prospects and damaging the success of the county. You can keep adding taxes on but it’s not a cost-free option.”

But supporters are quick to point to the success of London’s congestion charge. It pulled in a net income of £172m. for Transport for London (TfL) in 2014 and reportedly reduced traffic by 10% over 10 years. You might believe that unless you tried to drive in London.

Charges also more than doubled from £5 to £11.50 over 10 years. But only 40% of vehicles with four wheels paid the full charge – there were exemptions for buses, taxis, blue badge holders, emergency vehicles and others.

Not many cities have opted for a congestion charge scheme. London, Stockholm and Singapore are the leaders. Congestion charging is expensive to implement and operate, and is highly dependent on the provision of alternative transport. Londoners benefit from a ubiquitous underground network and a recently revitalised bus system, and people in Stockholm can cycle across their entire city in a matter of a few minutes.

Oxford is not so lucky. We have no underground system and the bus services are continually under pressure having reduced many services. The county council believes revenues from congestion charging can line the coffers to invest in other forms of transport, but councillors haven’t quite worked out the detail of these alternatives.

If businesses object to congestion charges, they have a limited time in which to make their voices heard before free travel through the city becomes another of Oxford’s lost causes.