As New York commuters brace for possible charges for driving into the midtown area, they can at least be thankful they don't live in London, where Mayor Ken Livingstone has staked his re-election hopes on boosting the "congestion tax" to as much as $50 a day.
The New York State Legislature still needs to approve Mayor Michael Bloomberg's pricing plan this month or the city stands to lose $354 million in funding to help kick-start the project.
The proposal involves raising tolls for entering New York via tunnels and bridges as well as charging drivers an $8 fee to drive in the area below 60th Street between during daytime hours on weekdays.
Livingstone, locked in a bruising contest with conservative candidate Boris Johnson, has proposed levying a £25 (about $50) charge on vehicles deemed to be causing the worst pollution, including four-wheel drives such as “Chelsea Tractors,” Land Rovers dubbed as such because of their predominance in London’s ritzy southwestern borough.
The tax would replace the current £8 (around $16) congestion charge, implemented in February 2003 and aimed at combating pollution and overcrowding in central London’s traffic-choked streets.
The new charge is organized into three different price bands. While many drivers will continue to pay the £8 fee for their mid-range emission vehicles, those with cars that produce under 120 g/km of carbon dioxide, like the Volkswagen Polo, will no longer have to pay to drive across the capital city.
Meantime, those with high-end vehicles that produce more than 225 g/km, like almost all Porsches, Land Rovers and Mercedes, will have to pay £25. The new charges would start in October and affect anyone driving into the center between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday to Friday.
Residents living within the congestion charge zone would also lose their current 90 percent discount and instead pay the same as those living outside the area.
'A complete rip-off'
Some workers and residents in the wealthy Kensington and Chelsea districts have protested Livingstone’s campaign.
“I don’t see why people who have bigger cars should have to pay more when some old cars produce worse (emissions),” said Philip Thornton, a driver for clients who own large vehicles such as Land Rovers.
“It’s a complete rip-off,” Thornton said, although he noted that considering the wealth of the neighborhoods, “£25 is pushing it, but a lot of people will just pay it.”
For central London workers who rely on their cars for transportation, the charge has added to their long list of woes, which already includes long waits in traffic and problems finding parking.
“I never travel (by car) Monday to Friday because of the charge,” Mario D’Apice, a painter, said.
He agreed that there were too many cars on the road nowadays, but opposes the new charge saying it was, “time to let the government go.”
There is an opportunity for that to happen just prior to the new environmental charge being introduced as Livingstone, the outspoken Labour Party incumbent, is facing tough competition from Johnston.
A poll published Thursday showed him running neck-and-neck with the Conservative challenger, an eccentric and chaotically coifed legislator once a fixture of the nation's television talk-show circuit.
A Guardian/ICM poll showed Johnson with a 1-point lead over Livingstone when voters were asked their first choice in the May 1 election. The lead grows slightly to 2 points when the complex system that allows voters to designate first and second choices is factored in.
Some side with the mayor
Still, some residents back with Livingstone's hefty charges.
Kieran Mcilwham, a student and cyclist, thought the measures would be good for the environment. He also felt that it would help combat congestion, given the traffic is “definitely getting worse.”
Another cyclist, Eamon Daly, was in agreement. “At the end of the day the c-charge is a positive thing if it goes towards transport," Daly said. “As a cyclist I’m for it as it helps with cyclist motorist balance on the road," he said.
While cyclists were obvious proponents of the plan, some drivers from outside London also voiced support for it.
“I think it is good for people with higher emission engines to pay more," said Lucy Noble, whose Mercedes station wagon would be in the high-cost bracket.
“It probably would stop me coming in if I had to pay 25 pounds,” she said, but added that she felt that public transport, her other option, “really wasn’t good enough.”
Diana Ekins, another suburbanite on her way into London, said, “I personally think it's good; I think it is important to try and clear a bit of the congestion.” She continued, “I drive into London a lot. I think it’s a fair charge. I think it's well worth it.”
Businesses in central London also have mixed views on the planned increase.
"If you have something unique people will still travel," said art dealer Karen Yuen. However, she said "we won't know for a few more years" whether or not the environmental targets of the plan are attainable.