London was the first city in the UK to introduce a congestion charge, back in 2003. This move has been followed by several large cities who have taken similar steps to discourage drivers from taking their vehicles into the centre of the city. Congestion charges are designed to make it more financially attractive to use other ways of getting into the city centre such as public transport or cycling, or give them an incentive to trade in a polluting vehicle for a modern or electric car.
Anyone who lives or works in central London has to be aware of the congestion charge and the area which it covers. If you drive into the zone covered by the scheme you’ll have to pay the daily charge, whatever the reasons for your visit.
The congestion charge zone covers the very central parts of the city, on both sides of the river. On the north, the boundary of the zone is the A501 Marylebone Road. In the west, Park Lane, Vauxhall Bridge Road, south along Kennington Lane, New Kent Road and Tower Bridge Road. In the east, Tower Bridge, Commercial Street, Great Eastern street and back to Marylebone Road. The limits of the zone are marked by road signs which show a large letter C on a red background. As you leave the zone, you will pass another similar sign with a “zone ends” message, and the C crossed through.36 If you are unfamiliar with London and not sure whether or not the area you are planning on visiting is part of the congestion charging zone or not, there are full maps on the Transport for London website to help you find out.
The Transport for London congestion charge uses ANPR – automatic number plate recognition – technology to monitor which vehicles are entering and leaving the zone. Each time you drive into the zone a camera will take a photograph of your car registration number and log the number into the database. The computer system can then check automatically to see whether the vehicle is exempt from congestion charging, has pre-paid the charges, or still requires to pay. Although this is the same technology which catches people who have not paid road tax or got a MOT, this is not the purpose of these cameras.
People who regularly drive into or through central London can opt to set up an auto-pay account system. This is a direct debit system, whereby Transport for London will log all of the times you have entered the area in a month, and then take the money out of your bank account at the end of that month. Paying by this method costs £15 per day, and you are free to enter or leave the zone as many times as you want in that 24-hour period.
Another option is to pay in advance. If you know that you are going to be going into central London, then log into the Transport for London website up to 90 days before your intended journey and pay for either a single day congestion charge or a week or month in advance. This again will cost you £15 per day.
The final option is paying the congestion charge after you have travelled through the zone. You have until midnight of the third day after you have travelled to go online and pay the congestion charge or phone up and pay over the phone with a card.
People who drive into London regularly are recommended to download the TfL app, which lets you check whether a postcode is in the charging zone, set up automatic payments, pay penalty notices and see what payments you have made int the past. Setting up the account and using the AutoPay direct debit system avoids the need to log on every day and make your payments, or to have a way of keeping track of just how many times you have driven in and out of the city in a month.
The congestion charging zone is different to the ULEZ, or ultra low emissions zone. This is another attempt to clear up air pollution in central London, and covers a different area. If your car does not meet limits for the emission zone, you will have to pay that charge and the congestion charge if going into the middle of London. Again, there is lots of information about the areas covered by the ULEZ, and the types of vehicles which have to pay it on the Transport for London website. Be aware that there are current proposals for an expansion of the low emissions zone in the pipeline, which could extend the area covered to most of Greater London, although there are currently no plans to extend the congestion charging zone too.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the numbers of cars entering central London plummeted, as did Transport for London’s revenue from the charges. Before the pandemic hit, the congestion charge zone was in operation from 7am to 6pm on weekdays, with no charges at the weekend. In June 2020, the charging period was extended considerably from 7am to 10pm, every day of the week. Prices were also increased from £11.50 per day to £15 per day. In February 2022, the rules were changed again. Currently, the congestion charging period has returned to the pre-pandemic hours of 7am to 6pm on weekdays, but the charging period now also applies from midday to 6pm on a Saturday and Sunday. Although initially the increase in fees was pitched as a temporary measure to offset the loss in revenue associated with the pandemic, the Mayor’s office has decided to leave the daily charge at £15.
The charge is per day, not per journey. So if you drive into the congestion zone at 3pm one day, park at a hotel overnight, and drive out again at 11am the following day, you will be charged twice as you have been in the congestion charging zone on two consecutive days.
The idea behind the congestion charge is to reduce polluting vehicles from going into the busiest parts of the city. There are some key exemptions to the system which means that not everyone will pay the charges. The key classes of vehicles which are exempt from the congestion charge are:
You can’t just assume that the TfL congestion charging system will know that your car fits into one of these categories. Anyone who thinks that they are exempt from paying the congestion charge must tell Transport for London in advance of their journey into the city. Go online and apply for the discount. If you drive into the zone without having arranged your exemption or discount in advance, you will be expected to pay the congestion charge in the same way as anyone else. The rules about discounts and exemptions are also liable to regular change, depending on policies and other systems such as the ULEZ. Always check the most up to date information on the TfL website.
There is also a system for reimbursing congestion charge for NHS workers whose place of work is within the zone, for people attending hospitals within the zone, people who work at a care home, or people who volunteer with certain charities. Your employer or voluntary organisation will be able to tell you whether you qualify or not. This is a refund of charges you have paid rather than an exemption from the scheme – so you will have to pay the money and claim it back rather than assuming you are exempt and just not paying. There are full guidelines about who can claim a refund on their congestion charge and how to go about doing so on the TfL website. This might not affect as many people as you would first think, as parking in central London is so difficult and expensive. Most nurses, care home workers and patients attending hospitals in central London use the tube or buses to get to work rather than driving there.
The area which is affected by the congestion charge is primarily a commercial area, but there is an estimated 136,000 people living within the charging zone. If you live within the congestion charging zone, you can apply for a reduction on the cost. Residents must go onto the Transport for London website and apply for their residents’ discount, which is 90% off the standard price. This means that central London residents will pay £1.50 per day in congestion charge to use their cars in central London, in addition to any ULEZ charges they may be liable to as well. Transport for London will need to see proof of your residential address and proof of your vehicle ownership in order to activate the discount. Remember that if you change your vehicle, you will need to re-apply for your discount permit at the same time.
Congestion charging money is collected by Transport for London and is used to improve the public transport infrastructure in the city. Full details of how much revenue is brought in, and what it is spent on, are available on their website. Historically, around 80% of revenue from congestion charging has been spent on improving London’s bus network by investing in modern and cleaner buses, and improving bus garages and shelters for the public. Around 10% is spent on road maintenance and upgrades, with the remaining money spent on a range of programmes such as a “walk to school” initiative or encouraging cycling. The total income from congestion charging in 2019 was around £230 million. Take off the operation and administration costs associated with running the system, and the net revenue available to spend on upgrading London’s transport was around £148 million.
It’s always best to pay your congestion charge on the day you travel into London, or in advance. If you don’t pay until the third day after you have travelled, the price increases from £15 to £17.50. If you still ignore the payment, then the system will generate a penalty charge notice of £160, which is halved to £80 if you pay it within two weeks. There have been issues in the past with fraudsters swapping number plates on cars to try to avoid having to pay the congestion charge or emissions zone charge. If you receive a penalty notice in the post accusing you of having driven a vehicle in London incorrectly, then don’t ignore it. This can usually be resolved by contacting Transport for London to tell them why it couldn’t possibly have been you in that vehicle – because you were at work in Manchester at the time, for example.
The ULEZ low emissions zone has the same aim as the congestion charge in cleaning up the environment in the city and reducing air pollution. When first introduced the ULEZ covered the same geographic area as the congestion charging zone, but over time this has now expanded and is now bounded by the north and south circular roads. Although the ULEZ and congestion charge area are similar, you can’t choose which one to pay. If your car doesn’t meet the ULEZ standards, then you will have to pay the daily charge to enter that zone on top of any congestion charge associated with going into the centre of the city. You can check online to see whether your car meets emissions standards by entering the registration number on the TfL website.