| Television screens monitor traffic congestion at the London Traffic Control Centre. (Reuters)
London, April 16 (Reuters): London’s gamble on a controversial £5 -per-day ($7.85) charge for driving into the city centre seems to have paid off, with traffic down by a fifth after two months, a transport spokesman said today.
Transport for London (TFL), responsible for the so-called congestion charge, said cars entering the 21 square km zone were down 20 per cent since it started on February 17. Traffic inside the zone is down about 17 per cent.
Major cites around the world are keeping a watchful eye on London’s experience in hopes that the city’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, has found a short-cut out of the gridlock plaguing urban dwellers from New York to Paris to Hong Kong.
Although there have been “teething troubles” and TFL warns it is too early to pass judgment, the world’s largest congestion charge scheme is widely thought to have started well.
There are no longer daily newspaper headlines warning of impending traffic problems because of the charge. These days, cabbies marvel at record journey times across town, while some pedestrians claim even the air they breathe seems less polluted. “Buses have been able to move more freely and traffic speeds are up,” TFL spokesman Stuart Ross said. “Though it’s still too early to tell. We will wait until at least the first six months before we judge its success.”
Not everyone though is pleased. Retailers within the zone say they have seen trade hit since the introduction of the charge. Critics also say the recent decline in traffic could be partly related to the loss of thousands of jobs in the city.
And because motorcycles and scooters are exempt, another negative development has been reports of more scooter crashes among those drivers less experienced on two wheels.
Paul Watters of the independent lobby group the Automobile Association also notes traffic levels have crept up in areas around the zone and said payment collection had proven difficult and more costly than expected. “We don’t believe London should be stuck with this bureaucracy,” he said. But he said there had been some encouraging signs “on the ground”.
Mayor Livingstone, who earned the nickname “Red Ken” for his Left-wing politics when he ran London in the early 1980s, admits to having borrowed the congestion charge idea from economist Milton Friedman.
London’s scheme, which dwarfs Singapore’s and Oslo’s, operates between 7 am and 6.30 pm from Monday to Friday. Cars and trucks in the area, which runs from Hyde Park in the west to Tower Bridge in the east and St Pancras in the north to Vauxhall in the south, must pay £5 a day. Hundreds of cameras help enforce it, by recording car registrations and matching them with those who have paid the fee.
Shares in Capita, the firm that installed and runs the scheme, have gained about a fifth since the scheme started, on hopes that other cities will adopt its charging system.