London’s left-wing mayor has used a very right-wing idea to revolutionize big-city traffic management. And to the world’s amazement, it seems to be working. Motorists have started paying a congestion charge of £5 to enter an eight-square-mile area at the heart of the city, every weekday from seven in the morning till a half past six in the evening. More than 200 cameras, placed on the zone’s entry points, will match number-plates against a database of vehicles whose drivers have paid the charge. Motorbikes, disabled drivers, taxis, buses and emergency service vehicles are exempt. Any motorist who has not paid by the end of the day will be fined £80. This scheme will raise a £150 million a year, with another £30 million in fines. This is far from a perfect scheme, and it is still in its experimental stages. But the mayor has shown rare political courage in cutting through ideology and inertia to carry through a bold and innovative plan for the first time in any metropolis. Singapore has comparable anti-congestion policies since the Seventies. Already civic authorities all over the world are seriously considering this scheme of introducing a pricing mechanism into driving in order to deal with chronic traffic congestion. Central London, supported by a more or less satisfactory public transport system, could now become a safer, less polluted and quicker-to travel-in area for its citizens.
Perhaps Calcutta, and its mayor, could ponder such an idea. The city’s roads — dangerous, polluted and lawless — now offer a choice between a quick and a slow death. Corruption, sloth, a general lack of civic sense and vision, together with political cowardice and opportunism make such radical thinking and action unimaginable in Calcutta. Besides, the sheer scale of its chaos turns even such rudimentary measures as compulsory emission-checking and clearing the pavement of hawkers into absurdities. Unwieldy solutions like building flyovers create their own forms of disorder — and, in the case of flyovers, the pollution simply reaches new heights, as it were. Yet, in spite of the seemingly hopeless hellishness of it all, the London mayor’s plunge does make one wonder what a little bit of daring could do.