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Cambridge road charge: What are the alternatives to congestion charging?

The Greater Cambridge Partnership has proposed a weekday road charge to pay for an upgraded bus network — but it is far from the only option that has been debated in recent years to solve the city’s transport challenges.

The congestion charge proposal would make car drivers pay £5 to drive in Cambridge — even if they live there, with £10 charges for vans and a £50 fee for lorries, from 7am-7pm, Monday to Friday, raising money for a bus system that would operate for longer and with cheap, flat fares.

Light rail in Nottingham. Picture: Cambridge Connect
Light rail in Nottingham. Picture: Cambridge Connect

The county council will discuss the results of the GCP’s consultation on the concept in June.

But the chairman, Cllr Stephen Ferguson, told the Cambridge Independent earlier this month that he could not see councillors voting for the current proposals.

So what are the alternatives? We look here at those suggested over the years, and their potential advantages and disadvantages.


Advantages: Cuts queues at car parks and encourages walking and cycling

Disadvantages: Reduces council revenues as fewer people choose to park

The GCP considered changes to car parking in Cambridge by reducing parking availability or increasing charges as part of its Choices for Better Journeys consultation in 2019.

It estimated that congestion in the city could be reduced by only four per cent if an increased charge of £5 per use was introduced. This would also raise £16million per year.


Advantages: Encourages sustainable travel options; could free up space for other uses

Disadvantages: Very limited impact on congestion; charge could be passed to employees

A workplace parking levy is a yearly fee charged for staff car parking. The GCP estimated in 2019 that it could reduce congestion by two per cent by charging £1,000 a year per parking space at business premises.

However, while some employers may choose to pay the charge, it warned that others would pass the charge onto employees.

The GCP estimated that a workplace parking levy had the potential to generate £13m per year based on charging £1,000 per parking space at business premises.

Cambridge’s Green Party has said there needs to be a “rapid shift” to greener travel in the city, and that it believes a charge scheme is needed, but that it should start with a workplace parking levy.

“We believe a workplace parking levy, a tax paid by large employers on staff parking bays, would be a fair and effective first step,” it said in its manifesto for the 2023 local elections. “The money raised by such a levy should be invested in improvements to public transport.”

This option was also favoured by Smarter Cambridge Transport (SCT), but it faced strong opposition from Cambridge Ahead. The business group’s membership includes both city universities, major employers, land owners and developers.

SCT argued it is the quickest option to implement because it requires “no cameras, administrative overheads are minimal and it’s easy to customise”.

Writing for the Cambridge Independent in 2019, Edward Leigh said: “It would incentivise businesses to assist their staff in finding alternative ways to get to work, and would help fund those alternatives.

“To begin with, a WPL could exempt, or offer discounts or rebates, to small businesses and employers of key workers, including schools and public hospitals. It would be impractical to offer similar dispensations for a congestion charge, which individuals rather than businesses would be liable to pay.”

SCT added that a levy would also help to bridge the gap to implementing some form of congestion charge.

Could a workplace parking levy cut congestion?
Could a workplace parking levy cut congestion?


Advantages: Cleaner air; encourages use of less polluting vehicles and public transport, walking and cycling

Disadvantages: Fewer affected by charge as vehicles become cleaner; revenues for public transport would fall

A pollution charge would be paid by polluting vehicles to drive into and around Cambridge. Like a flexible charge, this is estimated to reduce congestion by up to 15 per cent initially. However, this could decrease as vehicles become cleaner.

It could also raise around £25million depending on scheme definition. However, the sale of new petrol and diesel cars will be phased out by 2030 and from 2035, all new cars and vans must be zero emissions at the tailpipe.

This option was the most popular of various methods suggested to cut congestion and emissions in the GCP’s Choices for Better Journeys consultation in 2019.

The survey showed that 21 per cent of the more than 5,000 respondents chose a pollution charge as their preferred method of traffic reduction.

Meanwhile, 19 per cent chose the ‘other’ option, with suggestions given including improving public transport, better Park & Ride provision and higher taxation.

The pollution charge did stand out as a more favourable option if first and second preferences are counted together, where it received 44 per cent, followed by the peak-time charge with 36 per cent.

A Citizens’ Assembly looked at various measures in 2019, with members voting most strongly in favour of closing roads to cars, followed by a series of road charging options (clear air zone, pollution charge, flexible charge).


Advantages: Delivers required reduction in traffic; provides long-term funding for public transport; can be changed over time

Disadvantages: Seen to unfairly penalise drivers outside the city and those on low incomes

The GCP initially consulted on charging motor vehicles to drive into and around Cambridge at the busiest times through its Choices for Better Journeys programme in 2019.

By 2022, the GCP was consulting on road charging that would be in place from 7am to 7pm, Monday to Friday under its Making Connections consultation.

The option would result in an estimated reduction in congestion of 15 per cent from various charging options available to meet required congestion reduction.

Under the GCP’s current proposals, this option would generate more than £40million that would be used to fund public transport.

However, only 17 per cent of the more than 5,000 respondents to the GCP’s Choices for Better Journeys chose a flexible charge as their favoured method of reducing congestion. This placed it third, with a pollution charge and ‘other’ options preferred.

The first Making Connections in 2021 found most people’s first preference to fund and deliver sustainable transport improvements to be a combination of charges (31 per cent), with a pollution charge next (27 per cent) followed by a flexible charge (23 per cent) and increasing parking charges/workplace levy least favoured at 19 per cent.

Over the past six months, the prospect of a Cambridge road charge has met with criticism with two protest marches held against it, with one in favour.

Congestion-charging zone
Congestion-charging zone


Advantages: Could be fully-segregated; potential for fast, reliable and safe service; developments can be designed around the network

Disadvantages: Expensive; disruptive to install; impacts landscape; buses still needed to reach network

Installation of the rails and power supply is very expensive and highly disruptive and the space required could compromise the space available for other transport modes like cycling and walking. People travelling from beyond the network will still have to take a bus.

Cambridge Connect argues that buses alone will not solve the city’s congestion challenge, or meet its needs.

“The twin challenges of exceptional growth and climate change are so pressing that current plans for expansion of bus services will not on their own be enough to realise the scale of change needed,” Dr Colin Harris, the founder of Cambridge Connect told the Cambridge Independent.

Cambridge Connect argues that it will be difficult to make the city an attractive and welcoming place for cyclists and pedestrians with this number of buses.

Dr Harris believes the tram-like vehicles, as used in areas such as Nottingham, could be the answer, with an underground section diving beneath the city. The tunnel for this, the group estimates, could be bored in four to five months.

Cambridge Connect addresses concerns over affordability by saying their proposals could be phased, and suggesting methods of funding, including utilising funding from the City Deal from the government, which the GCP was set up to administer.


Advantages: Encourages public transport use; more reliable as it avoids congestion; offers a direct route

Disadvantages: Expensive; not current policy; tunnelling would be disruptive

The Cambridgeshire Autonomous Metro (CAM) was a flagship policy of the former mayor, Conservative James Palmer. It was estimated that CAM would cost in the region of between £1.5billion and £4billion. It would have seen custom-made vehicles travelling across the county on purpose-built routes, including tunnels under Cambridge city centre. But current mayor, Labour’s Dr Nik Johnson, strongly criticised Mr Palmer’s metro vision during his election campaign, describing it as a “white elephant” before scrapping the plan.

Supporters of CAM heralded the plans for tunnels under the city as the “right way forward” but others cast doubt on whether the metro could be built with private finances.

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