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London officials accuse Charlie Baker’s administration of ‘lying’ about congestion pricing

“The reality is there are far fewer cars on our roads in Central London.”

Signs indicating London congestion charges that drivers pay for entering the capital's central areas are pictured on the streets of central London. Tolga Akmen / AFP via Getty Images)

London officials are disputing the assessment of their congestion pricing system by Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration.

“They’re just lying,” Ken Livingstone, the former London mayor who oversaw the charge’s implementation in 2003, told The Boston Globe in a Spotlight report Tuesday on the Boston area’s own traffic problems.

“They’re just ignoring facts,” Livingstone said.

Earlier this summer, the Baker administration released a comprehensive study on traffic congestion in Massachusetts, which dismissed the feasibility of implementing several different types of congestion pricing in the often-gridlocked Boston area. And while officials have expressed logistical and equity concerns about using tolls to reduce congestion, Baker has specifically questioned the effectiveness of London’s zoned-based charge, which imposes drivers a roughly $15 fee to enter the city’s downtown commercial district on weekdays between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m.

“It’s completely cordoned off. And their congestion — they’re a top-two-or-three-in-the-world player when it comes to congestion,” Baker said during a radio appearance last month.

His administration’s traffic report also stated travel times hadn’t “markedly improved” and the amount of driving within the zone “remained essentially flat” since London’s charge was implemented.

But as the Globe reported this week, London officials “strongly dispute” those arguments. And studies show the charge resulted in a 30 percent decrease in vehicles entering the zone — even if the nearly 9 million-person British capital ranked slightly ahead of Boston in a recent study of the world’s most congested cities.

“It really is missing the point,” Alex Williams, director of city planning at Transport for London, told the Globe, referring to the Baker administration’s report and conclusions. “The reality is there are far fewer cars on our roads in Central London.”

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Williams said the charge has allowed London to “reimagine how we manage the streets” and prioritize more sustainable ways of travel, like mass transit, cycling, and walking.

Despite their conclusions, the Baker administration’s report even cited studies and articles that mentioned London’s 30 percent decrease in congestion and called the city’s congestion pricing model a “success.” The state report even noted that the number of “personal cars entering central London fell by 39 percent between 2002 and 2014,” according to the city’s data.

Some more recent studies found that traffic in London had begun to increase again, which some attributed to the explosion of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, which had been exempt from the charge until this past April.

“London has had a congestion problem for a very long time and it still does,” Baker told the Globe, when asked about the pushback from London officials.

The administration reportedly did not consult with London while compiling the report, but also said they hadn’t previously heard any complaints. Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack told the Globe that they wanted to dispel the notion that congestion pricing had solved London’s traffic problems. Pollack also said the report’s London section was not in the “facts part” of the traffic study, but merely reflected the administration’s policy position.

“No one set out for this to be the definitive research piece on it,” she told the Globe.

Of the congestion pricing proposals that have been recently considered on Beacon Hill, none resembled London’s cordon-style scheme, in which drivers are charged to drive into a designated zone or area. Rather, some state lawmakers have proposed using the state’s existing network of highway toll gantries to increase fees to drive during the most congested times of day.

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Last year, Baker vetoed a pilot program lowering toll rates during off-peak drive times. The proposal was intended to see if drivers would be sufficiently incentivized by the discounts to shift their travel habits, but Baker expressed doubts that it would be effective. As an alternative, his administration is studying the concept of “managed lanes,” in which drivers could pay a toll to drive in a separate lane running parallel to the free, most-congestion lanes.

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