Ken Livingstone’s Lessons for Congestion Charging and City Leadership

Read an exclusive interview for WRI Brasil | EMBARQ Brasil.

05/28/2015

Ken Livingstone served as the mayor of London from 2000 to 2008 and implemented a series of innovative measures in the city including the pedestrianization of public spaces, improved public transport, and priority bus corridors. Among his most recognized initiatives was a congestion charging policy, which has transformed mobility in London and inspired cities around the world.

Photo: Overseas Development Institute/Flickr) Photo: Overseas Development Institute/Flickr) Congestion charging means that car drivers must pay a specified fee to access certain parts of the city—usually the city center. The policy aims to balance the supply (space on city streets) and demand (people’s desire to get downtown by car). Thus, congestion charging uses a market-based mechanism to ensure there roads aren’t congested with an excessive number of cars.

The first congestion charging program was pioneered by Singapore in 1975. However, unlike Singapore, London consulted the public heavily to develop the policy, making the case for reducing traffic use in the city and shifting to more sustainable transport. The program has successfully reduced the number of cars in downtown areas by 30 percent and has encouraged residents to use the bus and subway systems, bike, and walk. Similar initiatives have since been adopted in cities likeStockholm and Milan.

Ken Livingstone will attend the Mayors’ Summit and the Cities & Transport International Congress from September 9 – 11 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The events are hosted by WRI Brasil | EMBARQ Brasil as part of EMBARQ Brasil’s 10th anniversary celebration.

How can we fundamentally change how our cities operate? What are the biggest challenges that cities face in improving equity and livability?

The greatest challenge is that our cities are growing rapidly, while at the same time they need to cope with greater pollution and climate change. This requires a 20-30 year strategic plan that can bring together businesses, local communities, and the public sector.

How can cities can become leaders and successfully implement innovative solutions and new management strategies? What is the role of cities and city leaders in the international economic and development agenda?

Across the world, it is often cities that have initiated change ahead of national governments, particularly in countries with strong regional governments like Germany and the United States. Singapore’s congestion charging scheme (which laid the groundwork for London’s) is slowly spreading around the world as people are recognizing that it works. The breathtaking changes implemented by Governor Brown of California are setting the highest standards in the world for tackling climate change.

What can cities do to help tackle climate change?

Cities are the answer to tackling climate change. The concentration of millions of people allows for both efficient transport systems without car reliance and sustainable energy systems. In just the last 15 years, London has seen a 50 percent increase in public transport usage. It’s often in the richest areas of cities like London and New York where we are seeing the biggest growth in public transport usage.

You were able to reduce traffic congestion in London by limiting car access in downtown areas. How did you approach congestion charging? What have you learned from your experience as London’s mayor?

Because congestion charging had been working for decades in Singapore, we were able to learn from their experience, carefully working on the details of planning and implementation to ensure that nothing went wrong on the start date. What I learned as mayor is to keep a firm grip on bureaucracy, pay attention to detail, and ensure that key advisers monitor and evaluate development.

What supports the idea that mayors are much better placed than national governments to make progress in the 21st century?

National governments and parliaments debate laws that mayors and governors have to cope with in the day to day of running their cities. Often, debate may continue on for years at the national level, whereas a mayor who is unable to tackle the problem of pot holes or traffic congestion is unlikely to be re-elected.

Building on this, what are your expectations for the Mayors’ Summit and the Cities & Transport International Congress next September in Rio?

Cities from across the world will gather in Rio to exchange ideas, share experiences, and demonstrate to national governments their leadership on these issues. Over the decades to come, I expect an irreversible shift of power from national governments to the cities.

What is the phrase or idea you want to share with the world? 

Devolve power to your cities if you want to save the planet.

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