London Congestion Charge and electric cars
When driving into central London, you'll see signs with a red background and a white C stating ‘Congestion Charge’. This mean certain types of vehicle must pay a fixed amount per day to enter the very centre of the city – something that's currently unique in the UK.
Launched in 2003, the London Congestion Charge is intended to deter people from unnecessarily driving into the city centre (particularly in private cars, causing congestion and pollution. The current amount you must pay for driving into central London between 7am and 6pm on weekdays is £11.50. The Congestion Charge does not apply to any vehicle outside these times.
However, some vehicles are exempt from the Congestion Charge at all times. In the early days of the charge, any vehicles emitting less than 100g/km of CO2 did not attract 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 means a smaller number of cars are now Congestion Charge exempt. No standard petrol or diesel car can achieve such low tailpipe emissions, so only plug-in hybrids, fully electric cars and a handful of hybrids remain exempt from the fee.
Even they are set to lose their exemption eventually, however. From October 2021, only fully zero-emissions electric cars will get away with not paying, and then in December 2025 that exemption will be removed, too.
What to look out for
All purely electric cars, vans and other vehicles are currently 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 cars are the Renault ZOE, Nissan Leaf and Volkswagen e-Golf.
Plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles (PHEVs) are also Congestion Charge exempt, as none currently on sale exceeds 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 as well.
However, pay attention to the wheel size you order. Larger wheels increase tailpipe emissions, and individual options and trim levels are taken into account when working out Congestion Charge exemption. In some cases, these could push a PHEV over the limit.
Hybrid cars aren't automatically Congestion Charge exempt. It depends on the model and trim level in question. For example, a Toyota Prius in Active trim has emissions of 70g/km CO2. However, adding Toyota’s Tyre Repair Kit (TRK) pushes emissions past 75g/km CO2, meaning you'd have to pay the Congestion Charge if you select that option for your car.
To find out whether or not you need to pay the Congestion Charge, look up the official CO2 emissions figure in your vehicle’s brochure or manual. You can always contact your dealer to find out more. Note that exemptions are not automatically applied – you have to register your car with TfL first. If you drive a sub-75g/km car into the zone without registering it with TfL, you will still be liable for the charge.
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. Doing the latter adds £3.50 to the total payment, bringing it to £14. However, if you don’t pay by midnight the following day, you'll be issued with a Penalty Charge Notice (PCN) for £130. If you pay this within 14 days, it's reduced to £65.
What other exemptions are there?
Ultra Low Emissions Vehicles (ULEVs), which comprise electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids and hybrids, aren’t the only cars to get away without paying or to pay a reduced fee. Residents within the Congestion Charge zone can apply for a Resident’s Discount from Transport for London. You need to prove your residency as well as vehicle ownership.
Blue Badge holders don't have to pay the Congestion Charge at all. It’s important that the vehicles used by a Blue Badge holder – 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.