- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 23, 2003

LONDON Street vendor Michael Williams' face clouds when he's asked about London's new toll to discourage traffic from the city center.
"How many times can you keep slapping the motorist?" he asked, starting a stream of expletives and waving his arms.
Mr. Williams', who sells fruit outside the High Court, is furious that since Monday he has had to pay 5 pounds equivalent to about $8 every weekday he drives into central London.
Mayor Ken Livingstone's congestion charge is billed as the globe's most ambitious attempt at easing traffic gridlock. To Mr. Williams and many other motorists, the daily fee is unfair, unwieldy and, they hope, unenforceable.
"It's making my business totally unfeasible," said Mr. Williams, who said he may have to sell his modest fruit stall.
Motorists are charged to enter a crowded eight-square-mile area, stretching from King's Cross to Tower Bridge, Vauxhall Bridge to Marble Arch and incorporating the bustling financial district. Mr. Livingstone predicts the toll will cut traffic by 20 percent, ease jams and raise $208 million a year for public transit.
In central London, traffic speed averages just under 10 miles per hour during the day, according to City Hall. It says motorists in the city center spend half their driving time stuck in jams, and it estimates that congestion costs London's economy $3.2 million to $6.4 million a week.
A poll before the toll took effect found that nearly one in three drivers surveyed voiced readiness to try to evade the toll. Fifty-five percent of the 614 people polled by London radio station LBC said the charge would do nothing to ease congestion, and 14 percent predicted it would make gridlock worse.
"Using the roads is a nightmare. It is horse-and-cart time," said Gary Kinsman, who drives into the center daily to stock his Covent Garden clothing stall.
"But what is the point of pushing people off the roads, without the trains and buses running properly?" he asked in a common criticism of the idea.
Opponents of the toll say London's subway system, the Underground, is already packed to capacity, and that buses run erratically and painfully slowly on the congested streets.
The RAC Foundation, a motorists group, approves of a congestion charge in theory but says the mayor's plan will cause traffic chaos from drivers seeking to avoid the fee by driving around the edges of the toll zone.
"This is a very, very high-risk project," said RAC spokesman Kevin Delaney. "I expect a significant increase in congestion on the roads leading into and around the charge area."
Some other European capitals including Stockholm, Sweden, and Copenhagen, Denmark are considering introducing tolls. In Rome, only residents of the heart of the city or those with special permits are allowed to drive into the center from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Others face a fine of $65.
Singapore uses electronic toll booths that automatically charge drivers as much as 2.50 Singapore dollars, or about $1.40, when they pass through a central part of Singapore, a Southeast Asian city-state, at peak periods.
But, said Stephen Glaister, professor of transport and infrastructure at London's Imperial College, the London plan is the most ambitious.
"The system is unique and has not been introduced on this scale anywhere in the world. Every single city in the world which has a similar problem will be looking to see if it works in London," said Mr. Glaister, who is on the city board in charge of implementing the mayor's transport strategy.
A network of 800 cameras polices the zone, photographing license plates from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. weekdays. Those who have not paid the toll are given until midnight before being fined 40 pounds (about $65), rising to 80 pounds after two weeks and 120 pounds after 28 days.
Drivers can buy daily, weekly, monthly or yearly passes by credit card on the Internet, or by phone or at post offices and some shops.
Residents of the zone get a 90 percent discount. Registered disabled people, taxis, emergency services, moped riders and vehicles powered by alternative fuels are exempt.
Stephen Piggott, owner of Rex Judd Motorcycles, said the charge has brought a surge in demand for mopeds at his London shop.
"I can't believe we are so busy for this time of year. We've been in business since 1931 and seen huge changes in the industry. But the resurgence this year is huge," Mr. Piggott said.
Inner-city businesses say the charge will drive up their costs, and public-sector workers such as nurses and teachers have argued that they should be exempt.
Actress Samantha Bond, who plays Miss Moneypenny in the latest James Bond movies, is a high-profile opponent of the charge and is supporting a group of London workers who are considering a court challenge.
"It will jeopardize the safety of people who travel on an insecure public-transport system late at night because of financial constraints and create a two-tier system dividing those who can afford the charge and those who cannot," Miss Bond says.
Transport for London concedes that there will be teething problems. But it says that in a city where less than 15 percent of commuters drive into the center, motorists cannot come first.
"The people affected are a tiny proportion of voters in London," Mr. Glaister says. "Most Londoners accept that something has to be done about congestion. This something is quite radical, but it is fair to say that most Londoners are willing to give it a go."


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