Image: Congestion charge sign.
Jennifer Carlile  /  MSNBC.com
A sign warning drivers that they are about the enter the congestion charge zone near Victoria station, in London.
By Jennifer Carlile Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 3/4/2004 3:30:57 PM ET 2004-03-04T20:30:57

The mayor of London says he is winning the war against traffic congestion, 12 months after imposing a charge on motorists entering the city center. Now Ken Livingstone wants to expand the zone -- but he faces growing resistance in Europe's most congested city.

“Congestion charging was a radical solution to a long-standing problem,” Livingstone said recently, boasting that traffic in the pay zone has been cut by 18 percent over the last year, and that delays are down 30 percent.

Already two other major cities, Chicago and Milan, are investigating the British experiment, which went into force in February 2003.

“Despite the dire predictions before the launch of the scheme, congestion charging has proved a success and that is why nearly 75 percent of Londoners now support the scheme – because it works,” Livingstone said.

Yet some residents complain that business within the zone has plummeted, the extension is unnecessary, and public transportation is not equipped to handle the influx of users.

“The extension isn’t necessary – it’s not congested,” said Emma Macdonald, a Kensington resident.

Snail's pace
A year ago, cars in London edged along at a snail’s pace of less than 3 miles an hour, according to one survey.

With the capital’s population projected to rise from 7.4 million people to 8.1 million by 2016, the mayor rolled out the controversial charge in a bid to get Londoners to leave their cars at home.

Image: Congestion charge warning
Jennifer Carlile  /  msnbc.com
A cyclist passes by a sign painted on the road warning drivers that they are about the enter the congestion charge zone, in Westminster, London.
An electronically monitored flat-rate charge of £5 ($9.40) was placed on vehicles entering an eight-square-mile area in central London on weekdays from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., excluding holidays.

Fees could be paid over the phone, by mail, via the Internet, and in convenience stores, and those who tried to sneak in found themselves facing with an £80 penalty.

The revenue earned over the last year, £70 million ($126 million), must by law be reinvested in the public transportation system. Transport for London, the agency overseeing the charge, expects the scheme to generate £80-90 million annually in subsequent years.

Settling an example?
Gearing up for elections this May, Livingstone told the British Broadcasting Corp. that if he was reelected New York City and Milan would likely follow his lead in adopting tolls for traffic entering their downtown areas.

Milan Mayor Gabriele Albertini has already met with Livingstone to discuss the traffic charge, according to his spokeswoman Emanuela Rossi.

“For us London is an example. I don’t think we will experiment with the congestion charge in the next two years, but I can’t exclude it,” she said, speaking to MSNBC.com by telephone from the mayor’s office.

Across the Atlantic, Chicago’s City Department of Transportation (CDOT) also “continues to monitor the London program, to determine its effectiveness and to see what issues are raised,” while keeping an eye on “growth and changes in our own traffic volumes and patterns,” Public Information Officer Brian Steele said in an e-mail interview.

New York City has also experimented with various ways to cut traffic, including banning single-occupancy vehicles from entering Manhattan during rush hour. And there are tolls at most access points to Manhattan borough.

But, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s press office did not have any information on implementing a London-style blanket charge in the near future.

While London’s scheme has served as an example to world capitals, road-pricing has also been introduced in smaller cities: Singapore began congestion charging in 1975 and since 1998 the island’s drivers have used electronic payment cards fitted into their cars. Beginning in the early 1990s, four Norwegian cities have operated toll rings, using electronic car tags around city centers to fund road projects.

Charge zone to be doubled?
While Livingstone trumpets international enthusiasm for the charge, he is also taking a gamble at home: if reelected mayor, he intends to double the size of the pay zone to include most of the boroughs of Westminster, Kensington, and Chelsea.

But, he will face considerable hurdles to get his plan in place by the projected date of 2006.

The extended zone covers a much more residential area: about 230,000 residents compared to the 150,000 living the current zone. About 20,000 residents of those boroughs would be left outside the zone, and therefore exempt from the 90 percent discount available to people who live within the charge’s boundaries.

“Mothers shouldn’t have to pay just to take their kids to school or go to the local shops; they aren’t encroaching on the commercial hub of London,” said Macdonald, the Kensington resident.

Brett McBain, a sales representative for the Big Bus Company, said that although he has seen great benefits from the original charge, “I think the expansion is milking it too much.”

However, others feel that those living in the most expensive residential areas of London should have to pay for the traffic backups they cause.

“Why should their extravagance be borne by those who have to drive to and from work?” asked Will Llewellyn, a shipbroker who cycles to work, adding that owners of larger vehicles should have to pay a higher rate.

If he is reelected, Livingstone will need to secure government funding for the projected expansion set-up costs, and take into account whether or not the firm running the charge, Capita, is up to the job. Capita was fined 1 million pounds for poor performance last year, but has since met all its targets.

The government has begun a 10-week consultation on the proposal, while The West London Residents’ Association, a nearly 6,000-strong opposition group, has sprung up to fight Livingstone’s bid.

Less traffic, less business
Another factor is that despite the mayor’s claim that businesses have benefited from the decrease in traffic, a London Chamber of Commerce survey of companies in the charge zone found that 79 percent of respondents said their business had dipped since the charge’s introduction, and 32 percent of retailers were considering relocating as a result of the scheme.

Specialty shops have suffered the most, with some reportedly refunding customers’ £5 congestion charge in a last-ditch effort to keep their patronage.

Meanwhile, some stores have chosen to stay open on Sundays, when the charge is not in effect. In Marylebone, a borough situated roughly between Oxford Street and Regent’s park, shopkeepers pushed for a Sunday farmer’s market to boost local trade that had been lost due to the charge.

Some small business owners worry that once customers have strayed they are unlikely to return.

“Once they’re used to going to the malls they don’t think of coming into town anymore, not even on the weekends,” said Keith Newman, whose electrical goods stand at a Westminster market has lost about 20 percent of its business in the last year.

“The charge has worked better than they thought, but it’s had a real adverse affect on retail trade,” he said.

Traffic has also increased slightly just outside the pay zone, and some supermarkets in the outlying areas have had to remodel their parking lots to prevent commuters from using them as a jumping-off point to enter the city on public transportation.

Livingstone has boasted that 29,000 more people are now using the city’s bus system. But, scenes of rush-hour buses heaving at the seams, too full to pick up more passengers, suggests his appraisal may be too upbeat.

And citygoers see the recent hike in subway and bus fares as a sign that the charge has failed to earn enough money to support necessary public transportation improvements.

“They need to make public transportation faster and cheaper – then (the congestion charge) would be fantastic,” said Anita Westmorland, a sales representative for a tour company.

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