London Congestion Charge and electric cars
Drive into central London, and you will come across signs with a red background and a white C stating ‘Congestion Charge’. The Congestion Charge is currently unique to the British capital, in that certain types of vehicles are charged a fixed fee to enter.
Introduced in 2003, the aim of the London Congestion Charge is to act as a deterrent for people unnecessarily driving into the city centre, causing congestion and increasing air-pollution levels. The current fee for driving into central London between the hours of 7am and 6pm Monday to Friday is £11.50.
However, there are several vehicles that are Congestion Charge exempt. Back when the charge was first introduced, all vehicles polluting less than 100 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre (100g/km CO2) were exempt from paying the fee. However, improvements in technology that reduces engine emissions meant a larger number of vehicles became Congestion Charge exempt. As a result, the limit was dropped to 75g/km CO2.
This meant a smaller number of cars are now Congestion Charge exempt. Given that no standard petrol or diesel car can achieve such low tailpipe emissions, only plug-in hybrid, fully electric and some other hybrids remain exempt from the fee.
What to look out for
All electric vehicles are Congestion Charge exempt, because they have zero tailpipe emissions. This means if you purchase a fully electric vehicle, you won’t have to pay the London Congestion Charge. Examples of fully electric vehicles are the Renault ZOE, Nissan Leaf and Volkswagen e-Golf.
Plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles (PHEVs) are also Congestion Charge exempt, with none currently on sale exceeding the 75g/km limit. So the likes of the Hyundai Ioniq Plug-In, Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV and Kia Niro PHEV are all exempt from the charge.
However, do pay attention to the wheel size you order. This is because larger wheels increase tailpipe emissions, and individual options and trim levels are taken into account with the Congestion Charge. In some cases, these could push a PHEV over the limit.
Hybrid cars are not always Congestion Charge exempt. This depends on the model in question, and its trim level. For example, a Toyota Prius in Active trim has tailpipe emissions of 70g/km CO2. However, the Active version that comes with Toyota’s Tyre Repair Kit (TRK) pushes emissions past 75g/km CO2, meaning you will have to pay the Congestion Charge.
To find out whether or not you need to pay the Congestion Charge, look up the CO2 emissions figures in your vehicle’s brochure or manual. You can always contact your dealer to find out more.
How does the Congestion Charge work?
You have to pay the charge only once a day. This means you can drive in and out of the Congestion Charge zone any number of times on the same day without further penalty. You pay the charge online, on Transport for London's website.
You can also pay the charge in advance, or wait until the next day to pay the fine. Waiting until the next day will add an extra £3.50 to the total payment, bringing it to £14. However, if you don’t pay by midnight the following day, you will be issued with a Penalty Charge Notice (PCN) worth £130. If you pay this within 14 days, it will be reduced to £65.
What other exemptions are there?
Ultra Low Emissions Vehicles (ULEVs), which comprise of electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids and hybrids, aren’t the only cars that can get away without paying or with paying a reduced fee. Residents within the Congestion Charge zone can apply for a Resident’s Discount via Transport for London. You will need to prove your residency as well as vehicle ownership to attain this, however.
Blue Badge holders do not have to pay the Congestion Charge at all. It’s important that the vehicles used by Blue Badge holders – a maximum of two per badge – are first registered with TfL. Other vehicles facing no charge are those with nine or more seats, breakdown-recovery vehicles, and motorcycles.
What about other zones?
The London Ultra Low Emissions Zone was introduced on 8 April 2019, operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week in the same boundaries as the Congestion Charge Zone.
Pre-Euro 4 petrol cars and vans will have to pay £12.50 to enter the ULEZ area, while diesel cars and vans have to meet Euro 6 standards before they are exempt from the charge.
This means that while Euro 4 and 5 petrol cars get away with not paying the ULEZ charge, Euro 5 diesels and earlier will have to pay it. As a rough guide, diesel cars and vans registered before September 2016 are not Euro 6 compliant. If in doubt, use TfL's online vehicle checker to see if you'll need to pay.
The ULEZ is set to expand on 25 October 2021, to the inner London area, bounded by the North and South Circular roads.
What are other UK cities doing?
Cities such as Birmingham and Leeds are also working towards Ultra Low Emissions Zones, where older cars would be charged up to £10 a day to enter. These fees would not apply to electric, hybrid or plug-in vehicles, though.
However, Oxford is looking to take things further. Under council plans, the city would introduce the world’s first zero-emissions zone, which would first ban all non-zero emissions taxis, cars and light commercial vehicles from a small number of streets in 2020.
The zone would then be extended to cover all non-electric vehicles, including HGVs, in the entire city centre by 2035.