February 17, 2003
LONDON -- It's billed as the world's most ambitious attempt to ease traffic gridlock: Starting at 7 a.m. today, motorists will be charged $8 a day to drive into central London, a crowded 8-square-mile area that includes the bustling financial district.
Not surprisingly, the controversial plan -- a pet project of Mayor Ken Livingstone -- has fierce opponents, though supporters admire its gutsy innovation.
"The system is unique and has not been introduced on this scale anywhere in the world," declared Stephen Glaister, professor of transport and infrastructure at London's Imperial College -- and also on the board of Transport for London.
Livingstone predicts the toll will cut the volume of traffic in the zone by 20 percent, ease congestion and raise $208-million a year for public transport investment.
Then again, he also worries the toll could end his political career. "But what's the point of being in politics if you don't do something with your position?" he asked, in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp.
Opponents say London's creaking buses and outdated subway system will not be able to handle the strain when thousands of motorists opt for public transport.
Inner city businesses complain the charge will drive up costs, and public sector workers such as nurses and teachers say they should be exempt.
The project is "sadly misguided, incredibly over-elaborate, technically flawed and likely to do no good at all," said Steve Norris, the Conservative candidate for next year's London mayoral election. He promised to scrap the toll if he manages to oust Livingstone.
Nurse Sarah Macauley, 39, who commutes from east London every day by bus, welcomed the project.
"I am probably the only person in the world who thinks it will be good," she said. "I like the idea of no traffic in central London. Something needs to be done."
In central London, traffic speed averages just under 10 mph during the day and motorists spend half their driving time stuck in jams, City Hall says.
Drivers buying passes must quote their license plate number. Residents of the zone will get a 90 percent discount. Registered disabled people, taxis, emergency services, mo-ped riders and vehicles powered by alternative fuels are exempt.
A network of 800 cameras linked to computers will police the zone, photographing license plates between 7 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. weekdays. Computers will automatically check plate numbers against a huge national database and those yet to pay will be given until midnight before being fined $65, rising to $130 after two weeks and $200 after 28 days.