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Brunel would be baffled that London has the worst traffic jams in Europe

Paul Finch

If London’s traffic doesn’t crush your spirit, trying to pay the congestion charge surely will, says Paul Finch

The news that London is the most congested and traffic-polluted city in Europe, full of choke-points and endless queues, will have come as no surprise to long-suffering users of the capital’s ‘road system’.

I don’t pay the London congestion charge much, which is sensible since the idea of donating £11.50 per day to sit around in increasingly constipated traffic becomes more surreal by the day. I am a public transport chap, reasonably happy but for the increasing people congestion, which is making the Underground actively unpleasant much of the time.

In fact I haven’t paid congestion charges for months, but on a trip with Mrs F to Cambridge to see her ageing mother, it made sense to go by car, given the amount of luggage apparently necessary. So I called the congestion charge number. The following is what happened.

11.00 First call: I hear a message that the number has changed and service has been ‘updated’, which immediately makes me feel uneasy. The first evidence of update is that you have to listen to nine options without being able to press a number to shortcut.

11.05 Second call: on submitting my TFL-registered pin number, a voice says it has not been possible to verify this, and invites me to speak my car registration number, which I do. The voice almost immediately says it is not possible to connect to DVLA. I decide to try again later.

16.25 Third call: on again submitting my pin number, irritating poorly recorded music begins, and a voice then apologises for the delay, tells me I can expect my call to be answered in ‘more than 10 minutes’, a non-specific and unhelpful message. Like saying the next train will arrive in more than …

What would Brunel make of his present-day successors, busying themselves making everything slower? 

16.55 Call response 30 minutes after my initial call, which is certainly more than 10 minutes, so is no doubt ticked off as accurate predictive information in corporate records.

Conversation with human on being informed that I have submitted my four-digit registered pin number, I am told that TfL expects a 6-digit number. I respond that the voice message specifically requests either a four-digit or a six-digit number. No explanation or apology. I agree a new six-digit pin, and provide my car and email details (which TfL already holds). I also explain that I have a new debit card. I am told that this will not be a problem. I expect an immediate email confirming my details but should have known better.

17.00 The service person (actually very pleasant) says she is transferring me to an automated payment system since she cannot take a payment over the phone. I ask her to assure me that I will not be put in a queue again with no knowledge of how long I will have to wait. She assures me this will not happen.

17.02 The moment I am transferred, music starts. I end the call.

17.05 I go to the TfL congestion charge website in the hope of making a call-free transaction. The relevant page is headed: ‘Sorry, we’re fixing something’; the sub-text reads: ‘You can’t complete the transaction at the moment. Please try again or contact us by phone’ (my italics). The site has a page trumpeting ‘Our commitment to excellent customer services’, and makes reference to TfL’s ‘commitment to putting things right’. If only.

17.10 I make another call and, Hallelujah, this time (although the music starts it cuts out almost immediately) the automated payment system kicks in.

It feels just like that moment when you suddenly become free of urban congestion, and a real road and real speeds take over. Driving out of London has been just like that. The general chaos caused by the closure of Tower Bridge (when are they going to build a relief bridge, and one for Hammersmith too?) probably explains the logjam anywhere close to Brunel’s Rotherhithe Tunnel. What would the great man make of his present-day successors, busying themselves making everything slower? We end up making our way to the Blackwall Tunnel which is clear, at least south to north, though hopelessly jammed vice-versa.

Brunel would surely be baffled that we have contrived to generate the worst traffic jams in Europe, despite making Londoners pay through the nose to move through their own city.


Readers' comments (5)

  • Driving across Central London sounds like a nightmare - and presumably the journey out via the Dartford Crossing would be no better - but in Brunel's day there'd surely have been porters to make a journey encumbered with luggage on public transport less tedious.
    These days step-free access is slowly improving the London transport system, but there's surely need for more in the way of north-south 'Crossrail' routes than dependence on a beefed-up version of 'Thameslink'.
    And isn't there also scope in Britain for something as good as the 'mobility' scheme at Swiss rail stations to make hiring a car rather than a taxi - even for only an hour or two - at each end of a journey as easy as possible?.
    Surely not pie in the sky, and the traffic congestion / charging nightmare - together with the realisation that diesel engines are a massive source of pollution and the painfully slow improvement of London's public transport - must eventually change travel habits for the better.

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  • Traffic has decreased by about 10% since the introduction of the charge but speeds are now below 8mph. One result has been greater levels of pollution. However, the most significant impact is the dramatic fall in the accidents and fatalities on the roads since the introduction of the charge – in both the charge zone and adjacent areas, largely due to the slower vehicle speeds.

    I trust that you found Mrs F's mother in good spirits if a little older by the time you got there.

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  • Can this suggestion about a decline in fatalities be accurate in view of the number of cyclists, three of whom were known to me, who have died in the last two years? And if traffic has decreased, why are speeds so low? And isn't pollution a result of environmentalists insisting on the virtues of diesel? Just saying …

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  • Known to many and still painful. The 'suggestion' is from a study of the ten-year impact of the zone on accidents.
    Less traffic but less space mean congestion and thus slow moving. Too much going through a small space. Roadworks, to replace Victorian infrastructure, public realm improvements, bus lanes, cycle lanes, green space and more trees are reducing the amount of space for vehicles. Even if the cars immediately converted to run on thin air, congestion would still occur, with slow speed but less pollution. Imagine that.

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  • Lots of people seem to think that congestion is somehow virtuous, and applaud anything that stops people (especially poor people, with children, shopping luggage etc) moving around cities at speed. Can't think why.

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