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Wednesday, 12 February, 2003, 10:57 GMT
Why Ken's charge will do damage for years to come
Traffic jam in London

London's congestion charge has been shambolically organised, says Steve Norris, and will damage the cause of sorting out gridlock in the UK. In a separate piece, transport writer Christian Wolmar disagrees.

Over-engineered, over complicated, badly defined, administratively chaotic and incoherently focussed. It really is hard to find a redeeming feature in Ken Livingstone's congestion charging scheme and that's before it has even started.

I admit to not having foreseen the administrative chaos which means huge numbers of residents inside the zone have not applied for their 90% discounts.

London's congestion charge starts on 17 February
Motorists must pay 5 a day to drive into central London, although some exemptions apply
The charge applies Monday - Friday, 0700-1830
Countless stories are emerging of a website which is inaccessible ("Your web browser needs to be reconfigured" is apparently the most popular excuse), phone lines which ring out incessantly and applications which are either not responded to or result in several responses all addressed to the same applicant.

And the idea that we are all familiar with how to register by text is laughable.

So a degree of chaos is guaranteed before we start and the mayor will be running hard to catch up, particularly if thousands of residents get bills for five days at 80 a time just in the first week.

How many unpaid tickets have to be in circulation before Livingstone declares an amnesty I'm not sure but in Rome it was half a million. Had the mayor researched the technology available and the impact of his new tax on low-paid workers who do not conform to standard peak hour shifts he might have stayed his hand.

Generally, poorer people use public transport and do not own cars, especially in London where it is easy to get around without one

Transport writer Christian Wolmar
Even if the administration works perfectly it will produce some strangely counter-intuitive effects.

Mayfair will have less traffic but the Marylebone Road will carry 10% more. There will inevitably be more standing traffic belching out pollution and more rat running in inappropriate streets around the periphery.

So Mayfair's gain is Lambeth's loss. And even if, as the mayor points out, the poorest people don't have cars the scheme is still hugely unfair to those people who just about afford to run one because it enables them to do their job as a waiter, a hotel porter, a cleaner, a theatre attendant or even a Smithfield porter.

For them, 5 a day means 1,260 a year after tax - almost 15% of their take-home pay. Ironically, for those rich enough to work or live inside the zone during the working day and who are therefore used to paying 4 an hour to park on the street the same fiver may not be enough to deter them.

Will the charge rid Piccadilly Circus of much traffic?
At most, the charge will be an irritant.

Finally the scheme fails the basic rule of any congestion charging scheme in that it does not provide decent public transport alternatives. We know about rail. The mayor admits there is no capacity available.

But his much vaunted claim to extra buses ignores the reality which is that all they do is to reduce standees on average by one person per bus at peak. Not massively attractive.

No, the tragedy is that Livingstone's manic obsession with rushing out an ill-considered scheme has set back the cause of congestion charging by decades. It is hard to see any other local authority committing collective suicide by apeing the London experience.

Former transport minister Steve Norris is hoping to run again for mayor of London in the next election.

BBC London's guide to congestion charging

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