The London Congestion Charge has been described as “ground-breaking” and “world-leading” as it turns 20 years old. Transport for London (TfL), which is responsible for London’s major road network, is marking the anniversary ahead of the expansion of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in August.

The Congestion Charge, which operates alongside the ULEZ, sees drivers pay to drive in the centre of London, and has been in force since February 2003. At present, drivers must spend £15 a day to drive in the heart of London between 07:00 and 18:00 Monday-Friday and between 12:00 and 18:00 on Saturdays, Sundays and bank holidays.

Originally, drivers of “cleaner” vehicles such as hybrids did not have to pay the charge, but now only electric and hydrogen cars are exempt. From December 25, 2025, there will be no more discounts or exemptions for electric vehicles.

Nissan e-NV200 van entering ULEZ in London

According to TfL, when the Congestion Charge was introduced it limited traffic entering the zone by 18 percent during charging hours, as well as reducing congestion by 30 percent. At the same time, the organisation claims bus travel grew by a third and 10 percent of journeys switched to walking, cycling or public transport.

TfL also claims 2019 would have seen an extra three million car journeys in London had it not been for measures including the Congestion Charge. Had those journeys occurred, TfL says the £5 billion lost to congestion in 2019 would have been even greater.

London Congestion Charge Zone Sign over night view of traffic jam

However, TfL now says while the Congestion Charge has been tackling traffic levels, the scientific evidence has “created an imperative to move quickly to cut harmful emissions”. The organisation says around 4,000 Londoners die prematurely each year due to air pollution, while pollution has also been linked with dementia and stunted lung development.

As a result, TfL says the ULEZ, which will grow to cover all of London in August, will see “five million more people breathing cleaner air”. It is also expected to see 23,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide saved in outer London, while nitrogen oxide emissions will fall by 10 percent.

Ultra Low Emission Zone ULEZ warning sign in London

“The introduction of the Congestion Charge in 2003 – the first of its kind – sparked something of a quiet revolution in transforming the ways that Londoners get around the capital,” said Seb Dance, the deputy mayor for transport. “The steep and immediate impact the charge had on both congestion and the environment paved the way for further transport innovation in London. Twenty years later and London is still proving itself to be the trailblazer. The mayor recently announced that his world-leading Ultra Low Emission Zone will be expanded Londonwide in August, bringing cleaner air to five million more people and helping to build a better, greener, fairer London for everyone.”

However, the ULEZ’s growth is not popular with everyone. An online group called Action Against ULEZ Extension has more than 25,000 followers and campaigns against the zone, which it describes as a “stealth tax”. The group reportedly posted an anti-ULEZ message on a Marks & Spencer store in Croydon, encouraging like-minded people to join and increase the pressure on mayor Sadiq Khan.