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London’s grand traffic experiment

The world’s most ambitious road-pricing experiment went into effect in London on Monday. But many doubt that it will reduce traffic—and if it does—they fear public transport will burst at the seams.
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The Londoner with a need for speed has few options these days. The city’s packed, labyrinthine streets keep traffic moving at a snail’s pace: just under 3 miles per hour, according to one survey. It’s usually quicker to just get out and walk. In hopes that commuters might leave their cars at home, London’s mayor put the world’s most ambitious road-pricing experiment into effect Monday. But residents of the British capital worry the congestion charge won’t work — and if it does, many fret it could leave one of the world’s most extensive public transport systems bursting at the seams.

The traffic charge hit London’s streets Monday with less impact than feared. Despite last-minute Web site failures and an error that caused 80 pound, or $130, penalty notices to be mailed to car owners before the charge began, traffic flowed more smoothly than usual Monday morning. However, a spokesman for Transport for London, the government office overseeing the project, admitted that the charge was purposely put into effect during a school holiday, when traffic is normally reduced by 15 to 20 percent, to ease the transition period. The spokesman said, “These are very early days. We won’t have a clear idea of how it’s working for a while yet.”


As the 250,000 commuters from outside London meet bumper-to-bumper with some of the 600,000 people who live in the city, they can expect to spend 50 percent of their morning drive stuck in traffic, said a London transport official who requested his name not be used.

“London is not like New York — the streets were laid out in medieval times. They just can’t cope with this amount of traffic,” he said. With roads already heaving with cars, and the population expected to rise from 7.4 million people to 8.1 million by 2016, London’s reformist mayor, Ken Livingstone, has made traffic reduction his primary objective.

By enforcing an electronically monitored flat-rate charge on vehicles entering the heart of the city, the mayor’s office claims the scheme will ease traffic by 10 to 15 percent within the pay zone. The revenue earned will be used to improve public transport.

The congestion charge costs drivers 5 pounds, or $8, a day to enter the eight-square-mile area in central London on weekdays before 6:30 p.m. Fees can be paid over the phone, by mail, via the Internet and in convenience stores, and those who try to sneak in free will find themselves facing an 80 pound penalty.

That may sound steep, but the high cost of living in London — street parking can cost 4 pounds an hour — has prompted some transport specialists to argue the charge won’t function as the deterrent Livingstone hopes it will be.

“It won’t change anything,” said nightclub owner Alex Rutherford, “I spend five quid (pounds) a day on fags (cigarettes).” The 28-year-old found a way to avoid traffic jams on his own — he had a satellite navigation system installed in his Porsche. As he relaxes behind the wheel, a computerized female voice tells him which streets are backed up and which are free.


Congestion charging is not a new idea. It was first conceptualized in Britain in the 1920s, but not until the past few years have technological advances made it feasible to actually collect.

To root out scofflaws, 800 cameras will be strategically placed around the city. One set of black-and-white images will focus on license plates and will be matched with a list of those who paid. Another set of cameras will take color images to show the location and time of the infraction in case drivers try to contest their fines.

No city as large as London — the most congested city in the most congested country in Europe — has experimented with road-pricing, but smaller cities have accomplished similar projects. 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. Drivers on Interstate 15, just outside San Diego in the United States, can pay to use a designated express lane. Prices vary from 50 cents to $8, according to the level of congestion — designed to let motorists decide whether a clear and easy commute is worth some extra cash.


Certain vehicles — motorcycles and emergency vehicles, for example — will be exempt from London’s fees. Residents within the area will receive a 90 percent discount on annual passes. And disabled-badge holders will be able to nominate two vehicles per day to transport them into the pay zone free of charge.

Transport for London worries that drivers will try to cheat the system by using false or dirty license plates, registering cars at addresses inside the zone, or by using a disabled person’s exemption.

The cameras will be used to seek out fraudster,s and discount holders will have to sign a waiver giving TFL the right to observe their driving patterns.

British media have stirred Londoners’ fears, suggesting the camera system is yet another version of “Big Brother.”

Dave Pugh, transport policy officer for the Greater London Action on Disability (GLAD), took the matter more lightly, saying, “Some reasonable checks would be understood — we don’t want fraudulent people to abuse the system either.”


If the project works as planned, as many as one in five drivers will abandon cars for the public transport system that already accommodates over a million commuters daily.

But even as the city government touts the London bus system and the “enormous investment” made in it over the last two years, overcrowded double-deckers often pass swarms of people at bus stops too full to pick up any more passengers.

On a recent misty morning, Jacquelyn Fletcher, 59, scheduled for double hip replacement surgery, stood leaning on a cane waiting for a bus in West London.

“They say this bus comes every 10 minutes. I’ve been waiting 50. And I’ll bet you any money that when it gets here it’ll be full,” she said. “There are too many cars on the road — we’re only a small island. But I don’t think you can cut down on traffic because public transport is completely unreliable.”

The outlook for London’s subway, the Underground, is even bleaker. During rush hour and on weekend evenings, platforms at key stations get dangerously crowded. Shoulder-to-shoulder, impatient commuters push their way closer to the rails while the elderly and those with children inch toward the wall, afraid of being pushed onto the tracks.

On condition of anonymity, a London Underground spokeswoman explained that an increase in rush-hour passengers could cause serious back-ups and delays. “Crowd control measures on the Underground are taking place at a number of stations now. A great influx of people will mean we must enforce more crowd control — stop entry into stations — wait for platforms to clear,” she said.


Many residents just outside the pay zone fear they will suffer from an increase in traffic and air pollution. Others allege that officials have jammed up roadways with maintenance and construction to exaggerate congestion. “They are deliberately causing the conditions — it’s pure road-work — they’ll clear it off once it (congestion charging) goes into effect,” said Steve Martin, a distribution service employee. “Drive around London like I do every night and you’ll know what I’m talking about.” A London transport official rejected the claim.

While the vast majority of drivers in central London come from the richer 50 percent of the city’s households, low-income drivers feel that they are being unfairly punished by the charge. And as a form of protest, a group of 1,000 meat market workers have pledged not to pay the charge.

But many Londoners, especially those who watch the streets clog each day with frustrated drivers, have faith in the mayor’s plan.

“I think it’s a good idea,” said Zora Alba, a London art vendor. “If they improve buses and tubes, it will be great. I’m sure they will.”

Barring a systemic failure, the project will be evaluated after five years, by which time it should be technologically possible to use global positioning satellites to toll cars. If London’s experiment proves successful it stands to be copied around the world. If it fails, at least one mayor is likely to be out of a job.

Jennifer Carlile is a news editor at