Surcharge reduces traffic in crowded center of London

Monday, May 5, 2003

Supporters and opponents agree London's ambitious traffic charge is working -- for now

By Jill Lawless

The Associated Press LONDON -- Nearly three months after the city started charging motorists to drive into the center of London, traffic jams have shrunk, taxis are unusually abundant and red double-decker buses zip along at 7.5 mph.

In traffic-clogged London, this is progress.

Things are going so well that supporters and earlier critics alike agree that the ambitious and contentious "congestion charge" is working -- at least so far.

With 20 percent fewer private cars clogging the narrow, twisting roads of central London, even the capital's notoriously complaining cabbies are impressed. While they grumble that faster journey times are cutting individual fares, they are happy to spend less time in traffic jams.

"It's made things a lot easier, definitely," said taxi driver Barry Gold. "A lot of cabbies complain because fares are down. But I think it'll bring people back to cabs."

Since Feb. 17, motorists have had to pay 5 pounds -- about $8 -- on weekdays to enter an eight-square-mile zone that includes the financial district and the entertainment heartland of the West End.

Mayor Ken Livingstone argued the toll would significantly cut congestion in the zone, where car traffic was crawling along at horse-and-cart speeds of 10 mph during the day. He also hopes to earn $205 million a year to spend on public transport.

Opponents predicted the charge would hurt business, create gridlock around the perimeter of the zone and enmesh motorists in bureaucratic chaos.

Yet the results have been largely positive, most people agree.

"In the terms that were set out for it -- reducing traffic within the zone -- it has been a success, and there has been no public revolution," said Tony Travers, a local government expert at the London School of Economics.

"It was a brave decision for a politician to make. The long-term judgment on its effect will have to wait."

Transport for London, the agency overseeing the charge, says traffic in the zone is down by close to the target of 20 percent, with 100,000 people a day paying the toll. Residents of the zone get a 90 percent discount, while disabled people, taxis, emergency vehicles, mo-ped riders and cars powered by alternative fuels are exempt.

More people are taking buses, trains and the subway, known as the Tube. A month into the toll, the average rush hour bus speed had risen 15 percent, from 6.5 mph to 7.5 mph, Transport for London said.

Still, the agency said it will take at least six months to determine whether the plan meets all its targets.

But opponents' worst fears have not come true. The elaborate technology for checking toll compliance, which relies on 700 cameras to read license plates as cars enter the zone from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on weekdays, did not overload. There was no mass rebellion by refusenik drivers.

Campaigns against the charge have died down, and the war in Iraq pushed it off the front page of London's vehemently anti-toll newspaper, The Evening Standard.

Many questions remain, however. Some retailers inside the zone say sales are off. But a sagging global economy, a decline in tourism and the two-month closure of a major subway line all may have contributed to that. The Chamber of Commerce says it is still doing research on the toll's impact.

Some analysts believe traffic will creep back up once people get used to paying the toll. The traffic-monitoring service Trafficmaster has said that travel times for journeys into London are edging up, although it said trips remain quicker on seven of the 12 routes it monitors.

"It's like cigarettes," said Gold, the cabbie. "When they went up to a pound ($1.60) a packet, a lot of people said they'd quit. And sales did slump. But as soon as the habit kicked back in, sales went back up.

"What with all the trouble with the Tube and the trains, a lot of people are thinking, 'What the hell -- for five pounds I could take the car."'

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