| London mayor Ken Livingstone is shadowed by a man in a snail outfit on the first day of new traffic curbs in London. (Reuters)
London, Feb. 17 (Reuters): The world’s largest congestion charge scheme went live in traffic-clogged central London today with cyclists celebrating, motorists fuming and urban planners around the globe watching keenly.
The plan aims to cut traffic in the city centre where average speeds have dropped below 16 km an hour — barely above those in the 19th century horse-drawn era.
Hong Kong and Tokyo are among several cities to have expressed strong interest in the London scheme, which dwarfs those operating in Oslo and Singapore, as clogged city roads and lung-choking pollution become hot political topics.
“If the congestion charge works here, it will spread around the world before the end of the decade,” said maverick city mayor Ken Livingstone who has staked his turbulent political career on the success of the London scheme.
Livingstone, who earned the nickname “Red Ken” for his Left wing politics when he ran London in the early 1980s, readily admits to having borrowed the congestion charge idea from free market economist Milton Friedman.
While Livingstone spoke cheerfully today of possibly extending the scheme, the Opposition Conservative Party promised to repeal the charge if they win control of the city.
“It has cost huge amounts of money to implement and it is going to hit those sorts of people who have no other way of getting to work,” Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith told protesting Smithfield meat market workers. Today, London’s roads were unusually quiet, although the Automobile Association lobby group said it was just as likely to be a result of the mid-term school holiday as the congestion charge, which aims to cut traffic by up to 15 per cent.
“It has been very quiet so far today. Even the boundary routes have been very quiet,” an AA spokesman told Reuters.
Transport for London, which manages the scheme, hailed it a major success, saying it was an historic day for the city but cautioning against leaping to any conclusions.
“We expect traffic patterns to change in the first few weeks...of the scheme’s operation,” transport chief Derek Turner said. “Congestion charging will take time to settle down.”
There were sporadic protests around the city centre ranging from shift workers who say the scheme hits them hard to a horse and cart ridden by the organisers of a protest website.
“It is a regressive tax. It won’t do what it needs to — people will just build it into their costs,” said congestion charge protester Steven Redman, 36, an environmental consultant.
But bikers were crowing triumphantly.
“It’s been so nice cycling into college this morning,” said a triumphant university student. “A lot less nerve-wracking”.
In a huge urban surveillance scheme, 800 cameras at 400 points in and around a 21 square km chunk of the city centre monitor the licence plates of the 250,000 motorists who drive in the area every day.
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 ($8) a day.
British police charged a Venezuelan man with terror offences yesterday after he arrived from South America with a live hand grenade in his luggage, wreaking havoc at London’s Gatwick airport.
Scotland Yard named the man as 37-year-old Hasil Mohammed Rahaham-Alan of no fixed abode.
They charged him with “possession of an article for the purpose of committing a terrorist act” and “possession of an explosive substance with intent to endanger life or damage property”.