America vs. the Congestion Charge…

There’s a highly entertaining little story that’s getting everyone’s backs up in London at the moment that I suspect hasn’t really crossed the Atlantic yet, and might amuse a few people. But before I can tell you about it, I’ll have to fill in a little background. The Congestion Charge is a levy or toll imposed on anyone who drives a car in Central London. Cameras track every license plate that enters the middle of the city, checks them against a database of people who have paid (by text message, online or wherever), and if finds any absentee freeloaders joyriding around the city’s many traffic jams, it automatically dispatches a polite letter (and complementary fine) to the car owners / social reprobates in question.

The fascinating thing about the Congestion Charge is that there only seem to be two types of people who complain about it. The first group is the unfortunate shop-owner on the periphery of the zone. These are the people who would actually probably lose business through the changes. They have my sympathy. The other group are the – frankly – grotesquely rich, who insist on driving their cars through the centre because they’re too important and significant to use any form of public transport. Often Conservative politicians seem to fall into this camp, always somehow claiming that the common man of London is appalled by the charge, even though pretty much everyone in the Capital either uses buses, cabs or tubes – all of which benefit from the charge. No one I know in London has ever complained to me about it.

Now let’s get back to your scheduled programming. The latest group of people to have complained about the charge are no longer the super-rich or the political elite of London, but are instead the staff at the American embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square. Except they’ve gone one stage further. They’ve refused to pay it and are now operating as if it simply did not exist. It’s causing a bit of a diplomatic incident, as well as making quite a lot of British people grumble quietly to themselves, shift slightly in their Hush Puppies and gently waggle their hands at the television in vague dismay.

The contention of the US Embassy (and – to be fair – a selection of other equally uncivilised foreign powers, like the Germans) is that they cannot be legally required to pay the tax under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and Optional Protocols which basically gives Diplomats such an extensive range of local law exemptions that from a distance they look like superheroes. The parts of the document you’re looking for, by the way, are articles 23, 28, 34, 36 and 37. My personal opinion is that they’re rather scuppered by the ‘services rendered’ bit of Article 36, but what do I know.

Anyway, the consequence of all this is that they’ve run up bills that could amount to ¬£150,000 worth of fines, which they are – of course – refusing to pay. London’s local government agencies (and its Mayor – Ken Livingstone) are not terribly impressed…

The BBC News story on the fiasco quotes a US embassy spokesman who said, “We consider it a tax, and it is the view of the United States government that all direct taxes on diplomats and diplomatic operations, including this one, are prohibited by the Vienna Convention”. In response, the Mayor’s office has stated, “The congestion charge is not a tax. It is a charge for a service. All staff at the American embassy should pay the congestion charge, in the same way as British officials pay road tolls in the United States.”

Anyway, the whole thing is getting more and more entertaining. The Americans seem to be totally miscalculating the mood of Londoners on this one, who don’t seem at all inspired by their attempt to stick it to the man. And this was not helped by a leaked memo that they just read on Channel 4 News in which an embassy official said, “It is with significant personal pride that I can advise all mission staff that… all accredited US mission personnel are to cease paying the congestion charge as well as any subsequent fines or penalties”. Can I first say – wow! – someone leaked a memo for a story about the American Embassy and the Congestion Charge!? And secondly, I think I should probably also report that I don’t think the British news teams are taking this story particularly seriously – the memo was read in the worst American accent I’ve ever heard, and at times I could have sworn that the newsreader was about to burst into a fit of giggles.

So there we have it – war on the streets of London. And there’s nothing the British like more than a nice bureaucratic pot-boiler combined with a bit of culture clashing and grumpiness about uncouth people not pulling their weight. It’s the best news story I’ve followed in ages.

But what do you guys think? Should the visiting Americans pay their bills, or are they being held subject to a whole new set of taxations without representation? Bring it on, people – let’s get the whole thing right out in the open!

80 replies on “America vs. the Congestion Charge…”

My wife’s from London and we were just there for a month — too bad this didn’t pop up on the news then. I would have had a field day with it.
First, I think we Americans can be completely idiotic folk when it comes to our cars and to mass transit. I happen to live in San Francisco, where we enjoy a pretty great transit system within the city.
Frankly, Americans are addicted to cars. I think it’s our version of gated communities on wheels. Try and do anything to impinge on our autos and you’ll have folks go absolutely nuts. Kind of akin to how folks go nuts over the right to bear arms. That, added with the sort of mightier-than-thou attitude we can have overseas, and you’ve got your controversy.
I hope the diplomats get forced to pay up, big time.

Oh, and there is no second to the comments above… too much caffeine…
Side Note: San Francisco tried to test out roundabouts near Haight Street a while back to have folks reduce speed through neighborhood intersections. Drivers went batty trying to deal with the whole right-of-way issue — it’s like no one knew what to do when they came to one of these. Sadly, the experiment got pulled and this probably won’t happen. Back to regularly-scheduled rolling stops.

The congestion charge is more than a tax – it’s the first in a series of moves to protect government revenue against the day when zero emissions vehicles obviate the environmental case for fuel duty.
I would have an easier time swallowing the “charge for a service” line if that “charge” for the “service” of driving on a road was not already theoretically paid for by the road fund license….

By conventional definitions I would say this is a tax, therefore Vienna Conventions apply. It *is* a tax, designed to tax traffic off the road system. It is most certainly not a “service.” I’d be open to counterarguments, but saying it’s not a tax seems like a stretch to me. It’s certainly a levied “fee.” That doesn’t mean you really get a “service” in return. Seems to me they should really just decide whether it’s a tax or a service and then at least apply the rules uniformly across the pond. Problem is really if you call this a ‘service’ then government can make up a prohibition for just about anything it wants and force you you to pay to access what you’ve already paid for (via taxes) and call that access fee a “service.” No it’s not, it’s another tax!
Ludicrous really. I don’t mind if Londoners need some money from the American government for services rendered, but the argument that it’s a “service” bothers me.

The service provided, unless I’m mistaken, is not use of the roads but rather access to the city centre using a motor vehicle. There’s a technical difference there, which differentiates the conjestion charge from road tax. I wish we had a similar system here in Dublin, but our public transport systems couldn’t hope with the demand. Shame.

Only the obscenely rich need to drive into central London? You might find some disagreement from the million or so people who live in south London, half a hour’s walk from the nearest train station, (last train at 11:30 at night, just as the curtain goes down and anyway surrounded by a residents permit zone) and would like to go to the theatre, or a concert, or eat out in a decent restaurant, without paying ¬£30-50 to a cabbie or spending half an hour waiting for a night bus in the rain, and hour driving down the walworth road and then another half hour walking home in the dark…
I’m sure you’re not really an Ignorant, patronising, elitist idiot. But you do a good impression.

I find it telling that Ken reserves his wrath for American diplomatic staff while failing to chastise Germany for refusing to pay as well.
The congestion charge is not a toll. You cannot take an alternate route to arrive in central London. However, if the State Department moves the embassy to a more rural location as has been discussed in the past, they wouldn’t have to worry about it.

Well of course the congestion charge doesn’t apply at that time of night – only being functional until six in the evening… Sorry I gave the impression that I was down on everyone driving in London – I thought I said that I’d never met anyone who complains about the congestion charge apart from the rich who want to drive in down during the day.

I’m mostly convinced by the argument that every diplomat in the US has to pay road tolls and bridge tolls, and that this is the same – but maybe I’m wrong. Can anyone argue convincingly that there’s a significant difference?

Having recently come back from London, I have to say that you’ve created a great system for keeping the riff-raff off the street. I’ve never seen so many audis, beemers, jags, etc. in my life. Kudos for keeping privilege where it belongs!
Went on the tube a bunch of times. Never met Livingtone or Blair. Maybe next time?
Semantic games doesn’t wipe out diplomatic privilege, no matter how well developed one’s sense of outrage.

Hmmm, my understanding was that congestion charges were taxes. I thought this was a similar situation like taxes on tobacco and booze to discourage “bad” behavior. Calling it a “service” seems a bit spurious, but if you folks want to call it that, it seems like we should pay, and the Germans too. It’s not like we’re running out of money what with our war in Iraq and rebuilding the Gulf Coast and…oh wait…Maybe all the British mission staff should retaliate by bashing through toll barriers in the US?

Oh my! That accent was hilarious wasn’t it? The whole story made my girlfriend and I hoot with laughter. Terrific!
“You cannot take an alternate route to arrive in central London.”
what? what? I don’t have a car, so how the hell do I manage it?

As has been hinted, there’s an obvious — and, dare I say, diplomatic — solution: move the US Embassy to Uxbridge. It’s a blight on Grosvenor Square, looking like it’s been dropped in from East Berlin. It was an ugly pile of concrete even before the razor wire and concrete blocks. Get the Americans to move to a nice office park in Zone 6, and you’ve solved the problem. (Moving the ambassador’s residence there too would help.)
I’m mostly convinced by the argument that every diplomat in the US has to pay road tolls and bridge tolls, and that this is the same – but maybe I’m wrong.
There’s an ongoing controversy over whether diplomats have to pay parking tickets in DC and New York (especially around the UN building), but that’s a different issue. I sincerely doubt they get waved through the toll booths: and there are a lot of them in that part of the world.

Fraser: zero emissions cars (and even non-zero but less polluting vehicles, namely hybrids like the Prius, as well as LPG powered commercial vehicles) are exempt from the congestion charge. Which isn’t going to do anything to “protect government revenue”, which frankly seems to me to be a nasty combination of conspiracy theory combined with libertarian “pay no tax” ever-ness. I could be misreading based on just the one comment, of course.
I also seriously doubt we’ll get a zero-emission vehicle in our lifetimes. Even electric cars cause emissions somewhere, unless you can change the 60-80% of fossil fuel burning electricity generation in the UK to renewables and/or nuclear, and I’d love someone to solve that.

Should the visiting Americans pay their bills, or are they being held subject to a whole new set of taxations without representation?
i’m just going to overlook the whole congestion charge hoo-hah to point the following out:
i live here. i work here. i pay taxes here. can i vote here? no, my brothers and sisters, i cannot. as an american i am outraged OUTRAGED at being taxed without having a voice in where my tax dollars…er…pounds are spent.
taxation without representation? it’s all part of being a filthy immigrant, i suppose.

the significant difference Tom, although not what you meant I know, is that a road toll is collected at some sort of barrier – either by a person or a machine that won’t let you through otherwise…
the congestion charge isn’t collected that way and so makes it easy for people, like the Germans and Americans, who normally like to avoid conflict, to make a stand against it…
not sure they’d be doing this if they had to argue with some low-paid person sat in a booth somewhere who really couldn’t give a damn about anything except collecting the cash.
I think it’s the whole ‘combatting pollution’ thing that’s attached to the charge.
Someone tell them it really doesn’t have anything to do with Kyoto – although with our government’s amazing abiltity to sneakily impose various stealth taxes they might not believe you…

Yes, you can take the tube, but I don’t think they are offering armored and surveillence-proof carriages complete with bodyguards, are they? That’s what I meant. A diplomatic vehicle is not always an ordinary car, and certain jobs require those features.

Anyway, the relevant parts of the Vienna convention are Articles 34 and 49 with contention centering on subsection e, which states that embassy staff must pay “charges levied for a specific service rendered.”
If the congestion charge revenues are not reinvested into roads in central London, then the embassy is correct that it is a general tax. However, if the revenues are reserved specifically for roads in the congestion zone, then it is a cordon toll with congestion benefits, and the city of London is correct. A recent BBC article says that it is all reserved for roads, but it does not mention if those roads are within the cordon. Perhaps someone else can shed some light on this?

Bridget – I agree that there will be some diplomatic vehicles that people cannot possibly be replaced with a trip on the underground, but a hell of a lot of people work at that embassy, and I can’t imagine that they’re all ferried around in chauffered bullet-proof vehicles.

You’re right that this story hasn’t hit the US yet, but we’ve been living with this kind of thing for decades. Ever since the United Nations HQ was built in New York City, they’ve had an impossible time getting diplomats to pay parking fines. I haven’t heard anything about this in a few years, so maybe they’ve resolved it, but in the 1980s you used to always hear about internationals (particularly Russians) parking badly and not rendering unto Caesar in return.

Bridget: According to Wikipedia the revenue used to improve the public transport infrastructure. Ring-fencing of funds related to roads is a pretty common occurance in the UK – parking fines work along these lines for example (which is why some cities have really nice car parks…)

Oh, I’m in complete agreement with you, Tom. They should pay the charges or move the embassy. However, I suspect the funds are being misapplied, or America and Germany would never have bothered to mention it.
At the press conference this morning, Foggy Bottom said they were in negotiations with the UK on the matter, and they pointedly dismissed Livingstone as an inappropriate channel of communincation. If they can’t agree, let the ICJ decide.

As I understand it, since the revenues from the congestion charge are hypothecated and can only be spent on improving the transport system, it’s not a tax, it’s a “fee”. You pay a fare to travel on the Tube, you pay congestion charge to travel on the roads.

couldn’t care less about whether they pay or not, but I do know that we need one of those congestion charges here in NY! Then we can work out some reciprocal diplomatic crap and let it be over…

My friends over at Nanny Knows Best will be delighted with this one. And there I was thinking some of the people I read are pretty idiotic and here we have it. An extension of the American gated community meets Red Ken. It will be an interesting contest to see who comes out the biggest plonker in this one. Over to you Jack (Straw). He might be the biggest plonker of the lot.
Nice one Tom.

A hell of a lot of people do work at that embassy and they’re not all ferried around in chauffered bullet-proof vehicles. Because they are English contractors and employees. They don’t have CD plates. So how many evil Americans and, oh yes, Germans are actually scudding down the glorious streets of plucky London free of charge?

Solution: move their embassy out of london, possibly in some ugly suburb… Or there is a convention that say that they should stay under the guy in piccadilly circus?

I’m with you on the small businesses on the periphery of the Congestion Charge zone — but then I guess there are always issues and injustices wherever there are boundaries, whether we’re talking in concrete or abstract terms.
As for whether the Americans should pay, I’m at a loss; I don’t suppose it really matters what we think anyway. All international relations are ultimately Realpolitik. I just like the image of Ken Livingstone following in the footsteps of George Galloway and going to the Senate with this one.

MacDara writes:
“The service provided, unless I’m mistaken, is not use of the roads but rather access to the city centre using a motor vehicle. There’s a technical difference there, which differentiates the conjestion charge from road tax.”
This is where conceptual differences may become a problem. “Access” is not a “service.” Access is, at least by original intent, a right guaranteed by the public works that put roads into being in the first place. When government acts to rescind or restrain access, by adding fees to that once-free public space, it is not providing a “service.” We may agree or disagree about whether fees ought to be charged, but let’s not lapse into Newspeak…
The very phrase “congestion charge” illustrates the levels of absurdity that government will go to, to take money from the public rather than letting the public decide for itself in a more free market. It is a top-heavy, hands on approach by officials who have decided that *they* will be the intercessors of trade and determine the flow of the market, rather than letting congestion itself drive the market, encouraging people to consider alternatives / public transport / etc. when it becomes naturally uncomfortable to sit in traffic (rather than discomfort artifically inflated by levied fees, which leaves one NO choice in the matter).
Although I appreciate your note of technical difference, that was never at issue for me. I grant that “use of the roads” and “access to the city centre using a motor vehicle” are nominally different, but if you really think about it… they are one in the same.
The only difference is that the latter is more of a sophist rendering than the former.
When you let government redefine its promises (e.g. roads built for public use, funded by tax dollars and not by tolls), you may think you’re being englightened and sensitive to the concerns of the downtrodden but don’t forget that you are taking a position that directly opposes those who came before you, and built roads with no-fee universal public access on the very same premise… equal access for all.
Still, the bottom line on this question is: When government curtails a service from universal access toward selective pay-per-use, they are not providing a new “service” they are, in fact, restraining trade and adding a “tax.”
You can frankly use either term and it might work, but one term recognizes the history and the other pretends it never happened.

Surveillance protected cars? How do these diplomats get fined in the first place? There is a bigger problem here.
We’ve already redefined “tax” lets not redefine “surveillance”. Having your movements logged by number plate recognition is surveillance and I rather think those enforcement cameras and mobile camera vans would make the diplomats nervous enough. Having fines sent by Royal Mail is likely to upset a few security people.
I say we give diplomats a break unless and until the secret services need to get involved. In which case they use appropriate techniques which don’t advertise the target’s movements to all and sundry civil servants.

Nick said exactly what I was going to: the US Embassy should pay their congestion charges purely as compensation for inflicting their hideous building, with its multiple rings of security fences and concrete barriers, on Londoners. It is, as he said, a blight.
(I assume they do pay for policing etc? Couldn’t Ken just quietly up their rates and call it quits?)
Oh and as for Candace’s taxation-without-representation whine? Deal with it. I live in the US, pay taxes to the US government, but can’t vote — unless and until I take citizenship. That’s the choice we make when we choose to live and work abroad.

If this was just about the rich, it’d be fine with me. But the congestion charge, like other flat taxes, is non-progressive. Unlike income tax, the C charge is assessed equally against the wealthy and the poor. That means that as between a wealthy person who wants to drive in London and a poor person who wants to drive in London, where all other factors are equal, the C charge punishes the poor person more than the rich person.
The C charge’s rate is an arbitrary sum set to act as a disincentive to drive in London. For someone to whom 8 quid is nothing, it is no disincentive at all. To someone to whom 8 quid is everything, the C charge is a near-total disincentive.
A sliding, income-based scale would apply the same disincentive to every user of the system. By fixing the rate without regard to income, the system is stacked in favor of the rich.

The Americans still don’t know what the Kyoto Agreement is, so should we expect anything less.
The Congestion Charge is not a tax. It was not introduced primarily as a way of raising income for the government and therefore the Americans must pay it.
It is a solution to two problems.
Firstly the increase of cars in the UK has risen to such a level that the centre of the capital was struggling to cope. Perhaps Americans have difficulty understanding that space is something of a luxury in this country especially seeing as something like 25% of our total population (about 60 million) live in the SE thus meaning the central point in the South East has a little bit of a problem with cars actually being able to move at all!
Secondly the number of cars was leading to Central London being polluted. Reducing the emissions of fumes in the centre – where the average American tourist will spend their entire time in London – is of benefit to everyone visiting the city as well as those who live and work there. It is also is in keeping with the Kyoto agreement which Britain (but not America) is signed up to.
Thirdly it is a general policy throughout the country to try and increase the use of public transport, for reasons of health by trying to get the British public to get out of their cars and use their feet. Now this is a concept that American’s definitely won’t get…
Whilst I think the use of the word ‘service’ about the congestion charge is wrong, I can see the benefits of it.
Yet again we see an instance of Americans being hypocrits and thinking theres one rule for them and another for the rest of the world. If we have to pay tolls they damn well should.

As for the comments about stealth tax and not being about Kyoto, I agree to a point but only to a point.
Yes this British government is about squeezing every penny but the question in hand I believe is one of the exceptions to the rule, and the revenue was only an added benefit. The problem was at a point where something did have to be done, and Kyoto means that the government does have to be seen to be making progress towards the aims of the agreement. As much as I hate the man, I think Blair believes in Kyoto and sees it as one of his precious policies. (As it will make him look good in history books)
As for comments for taxation without representation. I think you will find theres many British people who CAN vote who feel the same. Tony Blair’s leaderships is currently more of a dicatatorship than representation of the public. Just ask the people who protested at the Iraq war and were promptly ignored. I know this is off topic, but the way the British electoral system works means that the idea of representation is something of a myth. And the American system isn’t much better.

I think the bigger picture needs to be looked at. Why have diplomatic immunity? Surely anyone in this country should be subject to the laws and rules applicable to it.

There’s a few comments about how they wouldn’t argue if the fee had to paid at toll booths (which would take up a significant space, as well as causing more congestion) instead of in advance. How about if we setup some “verification toll booths”, kind of like the random mobile cameras at the moment, but with an operator and real-time checking. Then “randomly” place them around the US embassy :-).

I’m a bit late to the dance, here, so I see (at least) two people already discussed the issue diplomats in the US refusing to pay parking tickets. It is my belief, and hope, that those with diplomatic status are serving at their posts to allow a reasonably accurate and sensitive exchange of information and values between societies. Diplomats are invited and hosted, and I believe they should be extended every benefit accorded a guest of state.
Situations like the complete lack of parking in NYC or proper roadways through London are preexisting conditions, and stategies for allowing diplomats to handle them should be made by the host state. Charging a dimplomat, or an entire diplomatic service, with creating this situation is quite simply backward.
As I now disclaim that I have not the Geneva documents, I can clearly see the need to produce a legal grey area in which diplomats may operate. I also suppose that, given the shear number of taxes and fees and tolls and tickets and fines that one encounters daily, an effective diplomat must simply bite her tongue and deal with many of them. Stopping at a tollbooth to discuss one’s diplomatic status in the hopes of avoiding a two dollar payment is likely not occur except under the most extreme circumstances. To buy a slice of pizza, I assume a British diplomat would not dispute the several percent tax on prepared foods in most US states. Likewise, I would expect American diplomats to pay VAT on gasoline or cheese or whatever is you people charge VAT on. When conflict is easily avoidable, as it appears to be in the case of identifying an automobile as intended for diplomatic use, either physcially or in a database, why would the host state not take the proper steps to manage the situation?

Following Cory’s point, a poor person’s car causes just as much damage to the environment as a rich person’s one – possibly more, as it’s likely to be older and thus less fuel efficient. Having been the kind of person who wanders around London at peak periods, I’ve definitely seen a reduction in traffic – which means that other traffic, most notably buses, can get around town more easily, which is a benefit to everyone.

Ian, if the government wants to ban private automobile ownership, they should.
Otherwise, if this program is intended to change the calculus that a car owner computes in determining whether to operate a vehicle in town, the weight on the “no” side should be the same for all users.
Unquestionably, there are some socially beneficial purposes for operating a private vehicle. Maximizing these while minimizing other uses is the purpose of an incentive/disinventive program like the C charge.
The objective here is to make driving a car less attractive to all users. But a flat fee makes cars far less attractive to poor people than it does to rich people. Unless poor peoples’ car use is less likely to be socially beneficial than rich peoples’ car use, then this incentive program will fail at maximizing good uses and minimizing bad uses. Instead, it will minimize most use by poor people (including, potentially, uses that are socially beneficial) and have little impact on rich people.
Indeed, to have the desired effect on rich people, the fee would likely have to be set *very* high (say, if driving in town was intended to cost 0.5% of your monthly net income). At that level, it would likely eliminate all users of the road save the very wealthy, which is sub-optimal.
However, a sliding scale that provides as close to an equal disincentive to all users would solve these problems.
Regarding poor peoples’ cars being worse polluters: firstly, this is intended to relieve congestion as well as pollution, and so emissions are not the whole story; secondly, if there are cars that emit beyond a safe or desirable threshhold, then they should be taken off the road altogether through a direct programme of inspection and certification. Removing polluters by burdening the poor is likely to be far less effective at controlling emissions than an emission-reduction programme.

Good point made by Cory – since 1997 when new labour came to power, poor people are being taxed more (as a proportion of income) than rich people, due to a large extent to non-income related taxes (council tax being one).

Cory: from memory, Ken Livingstone said he wasn’t legally able to implement a sliding-scale congestion charge, otherwise he would have.
Yes, in theory it would be much better if the congestion charge/tax/whatever was progressive, but there’s something to be said for keeping it simple and easy to understand. Think how complicated it’d be otherwise.
Long-term, the congestion charge is a rather clunky method of reducing congestion and discouraging car-use. It can only apply to a fairly small area (although the area is about to expand, it can’t practically or theoretically get any bigger again), at set times, and at a set cost.
However, keeping it simple has meant that it could happen fairly quickly, was implemented without any technical hitches, and has had an immediete positive effect. The alternative would have been to do nothing at all for another 10 years.

Even though I support the congestion charge I think Cory’s right about the problems with the scheme, considered as a tax, not being progressive. Unfortunately there’s a couple of practical problems: First off, and probably most fundamentally, how do you measure disincentive? Second, implementing a non flat rate whould have some serious implementation issues, do you really want to be creating a database to store all the about car registration and a persons monetary worth? And what if a rich person is borrowing a poor persons car?
Of course none of this is a problem if you think of the congestion charge as a fee for services, I don’t think many people would suggest that bus and tube fares, for example, should be determined by your ability to pay.

Bus and tube aren’t incentive-systems. They’re public amenities. Where there is a public good in having an incentive to *use* the bus, it is provided (e.g. free busfare for under-16s). The congestion charge isn’t calculated as being the sum that will recoup the cost of operating it, or of operating London’s streets, or in regard to any other cost from the real world; the C charge is calculated to remove a certain fraction of London’s drivers from the centre of town. The argument for a progressive C-charge is that it would be fairer to reduce congestion by restricting the whole population equally, rather than simply chasing poor people off the road.
The C charge isn’t a toll. Tolls nominally recoup the cost of operating or building a motorway or bridge. They aren’t intended to disincentivize the use of roads or bridges.

It does come up in NYC from time to time, but you only hear about it when the city eventually gets fucked off with the freeloaders and starts impounding cars.
Me, I’m from London. Tow ’em and let the fuckers pick up their cars from a breaker’s yard in Mile End. Tell you what – we’ll crush them to the size of a minibar so you can drag them back to Grosvenor Square on the 25 bus. Which, by the way, now takes less than 2 hours to get there because we brought the congestion charge in.
To Cory: Welcome to London. We don’t consider it to have anything to do with ‘chasing poor people off the road’. Central London road space is a scarce resource. Bus users pay for it. Car users did not. We simply stopped letting lone car users take up the same space as 38 bus-riding commuters for free.
Oh and on an unrelated matter – *we* all call it Lego, not “legos”. So if you’d stop calling us all corporate whores for that, I’d appreciate it.

I know plenty of Britons who say legos.
You’re not addressing my point, though. The C charge, as structured, disproportionately removes cars operated by poor people from the road.

Perhaps they should move the Embassy to Edinburgh as it seems the people up there are not as bovine as those who support Livingstone and his Car Tax.

It depends how you define “poor.” Most poor Londoners do not have cars, so Cory may be referring to an almost non-existent segment of the population. Those who were driving into Central London before the C-Charge could already afford very high parking rates, so probably were not “poor” by most conventional definitions.

I see Ken Livingstone on the tube fairly regularly in the mornings.
Personally, I think the congestion charge is too soft. Were I mayor, I’d extend it to the whole of the greater London (like, everything inside the M25). I’d also put it up from ¬£8 per day to ¬£100 an hour – rising in line with your insurance class. Also, owners of SUVs would come under a hail of flying masonry at every junction. This is just one of many reasons why I’m not the mayor, and should never be.
As for the American representatives in question, they should pay like everyone else who chooses to drive in the zone. They should, at least, study the word “diplomacy”. In my first-hand experience, the vast majority of our friends across the pond are nice, friendly, well-adjusted people – it astounds me that they allow themselves to be represented to the rest of the world (foreign diplomats/border control/politicians) by such objectionable specimens.
Mind you, our very own Prince Philip is the true master of being fantastically offensive to people in their own countries. Did he not ask an Australian indigenous tribesman whether they still go around throwing sticks at one-another? Making a nuisance of oneself while abroad is a very British institution.

Quick responses to some people – I have never heard a native Briton use the word Legos except either in conversation with Americans or in order to talk about how weird it is that Americans say “Legos”. I didn’t even know that there was such a word as Legos until I was about twenty-five / twenty-six. I’d suggest that if Britons do say legos they do so pretty rarely.
The other poing that people are making – that almost everyone who works in Central London uses public transport, that parking is enormously expensive in Central London and that it seems a bit random to talk about the congestion charge penalising the poor – seems conceptually wrong, but pragmatically true. For the most part it was always a small proportion of the middle classes and a larger proportion of the rich who drove in Central London and – if you listen to some of the rhetoric around the time it was launched – many of the latter declared it abhorrent that they’d have to go on public transport with common people.
But obviously this is not totally true, and – as someone has pointed out above – there are parts of the city worse served by public transport where car ownership and driving is much more common – including much of South London.
In the end though, given that the congestion charge is reinvested into public transport in London, and that it makes public transport and the buses in London run much faster – I can’t help thinking that on aggregate it disproportionately benefits the poor, precisely the people who would not have normally driven. It seems to me difficult to argue that as a taxation of a purely regressive nature

Apparently the Germans are refusing as well.
In a city with extensive public transport I don’t see what the problem is with a congestion charge. Londoners may complain about public transport but its exceptional compared with the rest of the country. At least Londoners have a choice of using a car and paying or using public transport.
With the success of the Congestion Charge the goverment is thinking of rolling it out and charging up to £1 a mile for the use of motorways in rush hour. This is all well and good, but there is virtually no public transport where I live in the NW. The government refuses to fund the extension of the Manchester Metro Link and the building of a Liverpool one. Its a 45mile round trip to work, and my boyfriend has a 45mile trip in the opposite direction. The £1 a mile trip would put us both out of work! I am amazed at how seriously the proposal is actually being taken.
And I’ve never heard anyone say Legos.

Many are referencing Cory’s point, but why are we focused on this charge’s effects on the poor? Do not the poor and the rich pay the same for a litre of gas and all its attendant taxes? What about cigarettes, and those taxes? I’ll bet, too, that the rich aren’t forced to buy milk at a higher rate. The cost of doing business is so much higher, in proportion, for poor than rich people that it hardly deserves mention in this discussion- no offense to Cory.
For many Americans, at least, the costs of housing, utilities, food, and transportation almost completely drain the monthly funds. Sometimes, the poor cannot do this, even. The rich require no more than the basics to survive, and the remainder is what makes them rich. This, my friends, is the salient point when discussing taxation and wealth. It’s not how much you make or spend, but how much you save, that builds wealth.

“The C charge, as structured, disproportionately removes cars operated by poor people from the road.”
And the evidence of that is…?
Anyway, a quick hypothetical: if a car from the US mission were clamped and/or towed by one of those wonderful private ‘parking management agencies’, I’d like to see the second deputy cultural attach√© wave a copy of the Vienna Convention around.

here is a road with lots of cars. if someone gets rid of some of the cars so that the remaining cars (and all of the buses) can move around better, aren’t they providing a service? especially if in so doing, they generate funds to improve public transport?

At Penn State University, the Eisenhower Parking Deck was build entirely with money from parking fines. The school is incredibly, filthy, stinking rich, but you have to admit that has a bit of style.

This whole thread has great comic timing. Each time it looks like dying suddenly it’s pow! and we’re head-to-head on the nomenclature of plastic bricks or something. Cap it with an example of Godwin’s Law and I think we can agree to call this one a classic.
Oh, and thank you – I’ve only ever seen “legos” written by Cory Doctorow until now.

Hmmm… not very sporting of the Yanks not to pay, but still, I disagree with Ken. It is a tax. Sugar coating it with the word “service” doesn;t fool anyone.
One thing I wish Ken would consider- air conditioning on the Tube. It’s inhuman what Londoners have to go through every summer.

As if the rest of the world doesn’t already think we’re all a bunch of jack*sses…
I think the analogy about U.S. Tolls is dead on. And according to an earlier comment; shouldn’t all tolls be considered taxes and not paid by diplomats?
Yet again I am ashamed of the behavior or my fellow US citizens abroad (it’s bad enough that they act like d*ckheads at home)…

“air conditioning on the Tube”
I’ve wondered about this. Since aircon removes the hot air and replaces it with cold air (okay, it’s more complicated but that’s the basics) wouldn’t airconditioned trains make the platforms and stations unbearably hot?
I found layers to be the best solution, and a technique for undressing / redressing on escalators.

this story is now really getting around. and all the comments and details are interesting and relevant (ie. the true definition of a ‘tax’). but what most people will get from it is that once again amercians are shirking their responsibilty to help clean up this planet. whether that is true or not, detail by detail, that is how it looks. and it looks bad.

Move the jerks to Uxbridge. Great idea. I live near Los Angeles and, believe me, anything you can do to promote mass transit is good for ordinary citizens. Life without it is about ten times more complicated and expensive. And the business about tolls and stopping at barriers: have you heard of EZ-Pass? Cameras photograph license plates if someone goes through without tickling the electronic sensor correctly. Fines are then sent to the offenders. They’ve always called that a toll up to this point.
I can’t wait to see what the Americans make of this story once it gets here. No quiet grumbling or Hush Puppy shifting here, boy. No, sirree. They’ll take out their .44 Magnum’s and shoot the TV set. Yee-haa.

OK, I haven’t read every other response, so forgive me if I repeat anyone else.
Speaking as a resident of Washington, DC, I’d like to apologize on behalf of my country for this one. The citizens of this city (that is, the normal working people who don’t end up on the news) have to endure all kinds of crap from diplomats from everywhere. I would LIKE to think we’d try to behave BETTER when in another country. Apparently not.
Please understand that these people only represent us diplomatically. They are as far removed from the average American person as you might be from your own diplomats. And since we’re not exactly thrilled with the politicians who appointed them, they represent us even less.
Since GB is one of the few allies we have left, it just makes sense to pay the damn tickets and move on. Sorry.

A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman said the embassy had only stopped paying the fee from July 1, when it was increased from £5 ($8.73) to £8 ($13.96).CNN
Their principled stance seems to be based on the value of the charge rather than the nature of it.

I must apologize for the stubborn Americans. Apparently we believe that we should have our way in all countries. Even when they are not our own.

Am I the *only* person who realized that this isn’t just Americans? Everyone always likes to blame America for everything, but in the lede of the BBC story it clearly says that this is going on with the German diplomats, too – who were told by their government in Berlin not to pay.
I just love how everyone’s so quick to cry foul on Americans, but no one gives a hoot about anyone else doing the exact same thing. Shame! Maybe this is the reason why Americans are so defensive about everything?
Anthony Baker – I’ve used roundabouts (traffic circles/rotaries) many, many times in my life. There are some in Washington, D.C., where I grew up, and many in New England, where I spent a lot of time in my childhood. There were three on the campus of my university (in America, no less)! Everyone I’ve encountered seems to know how to use them…?

The congestion charge is clearly a tax. It is designed to mitigate the congestion in central London by taxing those who want to enter. It is not a service charge because it provides no service in any shape or form. It is not like a road toll which is designed to raise finance for investment, maintenance and further development. The money goes into the Transport for London pool which services the whole of London, not just the congestion zone. TfL get some of their money from a central Government grant which comes from taxpayers.
Financially, it doesn’t affect diplomats because their cost of living allowances are simply adjusted to take account of new factors.

the significant difference Tom, although not what you meant I know, is that a road toll is collected at some sort of barrier – either by a person or a machine that won’t let you through otherwise…
This isn’t always true. Toll roads in Toronto send bills based on the registration of the license plate, similar to the London congestion charge, with discounts for frequent users who prepay and carry a transponder.
My view is that it’s simple enough to just deny them the service that they’re not paying for. Set up toll booths on the UK side of the embassy wall, and only allow cars through that have paid up.

Neil’s suggestion about toll booths is ingenuous, but not practicable. Most Amercian Embassy cars going in and out of the Embassy all day are official cars registered at addresses inside the Congestion Zone, and so not liable for the charge at all.
Talking to friends, we have more or less concluded that the congestion charge is partly a tax and partly a service. It is a tax because it is designed to act as a deterrent. It is a service because those who pay enjoy a better ride. So the solution would be to give the Embassy a rebate every quarter of (say) 50% for the tax part, while keeping 50% for the service part.

Seems like a road-use tax to me. It also seems a trifle regressive, because I bet that corporate people are allowed to take the fees from their companies petty cash funds, or as a privilege of their office.
It also seems like a great idea for places like Mexico City, where every other attempt to reduce traffic has resulted in MORE traffic and pollution.
Of course, in Mexico city, everyone would ignore the fines. The English are famous for paying invasive seeming fines. After all, if you own a television, of COURSE you have to pay a tv tax.
Do diplomats have to pay the city use tax? Probably not. Are most of them doing it? Probably not. Just like they routinely ignore traffic tickets.

if its a service to access the city centre then why do residents have to pay because of the location they live my wife’s family go back 6 generations in central london. if it is a real deterant to cars charge ¬£50 as it is still cheaper for 3 people traveling from a short distanc out to pay the parking congestion and fuel than three full train fares, kens a megalomanic. good for him he gets a cab into work evry day apart from the camera calls, but as a cabbie you can congest the streets for the ‘RICH’ to pay cab fares and not be charged congestion for your cab. make the rule for every vehicle not for the choosen few.
its nice to see some of the bigger companies withdrawning from london, even they are sick of the many ‘service’ charges being applied!
pls pay me £100 for doing you the service of posting this reply Рmadness Рno just a reading charge

Contrary to what you wrote above, I don’t know who you’ve been talking to, but there are a lot of Londoners who do complain about paying the congestion charge. There are many who cannot afford it and whose only alternative is to rely on temperamental (and in some cases incompetent) bus drivers and tubes (always on the brink of being shut down because somebody or other is on strike) to get them where they need to go. There are also other embassies that do not pay the charge simply because they cannot afford to pay it (especially after the increase from ¬£5 to ¬£8). By the way, what service are we Londoners getting in return for this charge? I pay over ¬£40 per month to use buses driven by people who should never have been given a license in the 1st place; there is traffic all over the place and if I catch the tube at the wrong time, I could get stuck trying to find a line that actually works. Not a tax my toosh!!

Does the US ambassador complain about paying VAT on a packet of gum at the corner shop? Does he refuse to pay alcohol duty when he goes for a pint down the pub? Do his staff get exempt from petrol tax? I’d be grateful if someone could clear this up.

So the revenue from all this congestion charge balony goes were exactly? If for example a mere 20% was allocated to the N.H.S for better care for our comunity i’m sure a few more hard working gentry would’nt mind parting with their hard earned cash. I for one am a low level earner, i lose approximately one third of my income to this taxation and for what? Fat cats boosting their annual growth and profits…i hope all in favour of this congestion charge lose all their hair and turn fat and ugly.

Wish we Londoners could do the same. Just ignore it like the American Diplomats do. Especially those of us that use less than 20 metres of CC road before heading out of London (camera just on the boundary), and don’t drive often enough to qualify for the 90% discount.
The system is very unfair for many residents who only wish to drive out of London by private car, but on a very infrequent basis.

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