London, Feb. 16 (Reuters): Cyclists love it and motorists hate it, but like it or not from tomorrow the biggest traffic congestion charge scheme in the world goes live in London.
The brainchild of maverick city mayor Ken Livingstone, the scheme is intended to cut vehicle numbers in central London by up to 15 per cent and congestion by up to 30 per cent in a city where average traffic speeds have dropped below 16 km an hour.
In a Big Brother type urban surveillance scheme, 800 cameras at 400 points in and around a 21-sq-km chunk of the city centre will monitor the licence plates of the 250,000 motorists who drive in the area every day. Mumbai-based Mastek is one of the 15 sub-contractors involved in the project.
Between 7 am and 6.30 pm from Monday to Friday, motorists in the area, which runs from landmarks such as Hyde Park in the west to Tower Bridge in the east and St Pancras in the north to Vauxhall in the south, will pay a fee of £5 a day.
Traffic congestion has become a major issue for cities globally, with environmentalists complaining about increasing levels of pollution and business leaders saying the jams stop the wheels of commerce turning.
Now cities around the world are looking to Transport for London, which is overseeing the scheme, to see how it fares.
But even before it has started, the London scheme has provoked outbursts from supporters and detractors alike.
On one Internet chat forum there has been a lively discussion of how to put the cameras out of action ranging from burning out their electronics with laser pointers to the more low tech option of a can of spray paint and a sledgehammer.
On the other hand, a group of cyclists is planning a champagne celebration on Monday morning to welcome what they see as winning back the roads from four-wheeled lung chokers.
Small businesses have slammed the scheme that they see as loading them with further unwelcome costs, taxi drivers who are among those who are exempt have given it a cautious welcome and environmentalists have whooped for joy. Homeowners on the periphery of the area have been warned their property values could be hit as motorists seek “rat runs” around the edge to avoid the charge.
And while the Automobile Association has welcomed the scheme in principle, spokeswoman Louise Dean complained it had not been properly thought through and could lead to a ring of displaced congestion 4 km deep around the charge epicentre.
She also said the motoring organisation did not believe London’s creaking and overstuffed public transport system could cope with any serious increase in passenger numbers.