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EDITIONS
Tuesday, 18 February, 2003, 17:31 GMT
Smooth start for congestion charge
London Traffic Control Centre
Traffic flowed relatively freely on London's roads
The biggest congestion charge scheme ever to be undertaken by a capital city has got off to a relatively trouble-free start in London.

Motorists travelling into central London on Monday morning faced a 5 daily charge for the first time.

The scheme designed to alleviate traffic gridlock in London is being watched closely by cities across the UK.

London was like a ghost town and possessed an eerie beauty

As the first rush-hour of the scheme ended, there was little sign of the feared traffic chaos or major public transport problems.

This was partly due to lighter traffic during the half-term school holidays.

Opponents of the scheme, including Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, have taken part in protests across the capital.

Up to 30,000 drivers were expected to leave their cars at home.

Open in new window : In pictures
The view from the street during the first rush hour

London Mayor Ken Livingstone had anticipated a "bloody day" as commuters came to terms with the scheme.

Speaking from the traffic control centre, he said: "I'm just waiting for something to go wrong."

Motorists failing to pay the 5 daily charge - payable 0700-1830 GMT weekdays - risk being caught on camera and fined 80.

Officials from 30 other British cities, including Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast and Bristol are also considering introducing congestion charges if the scheme is successful.

Few delays

By Monday afternoon 57,000 people had paid the charge.

The first fines for non-payment will not be sent out until Tuesday.

Mr Livingstone said it would be Easter before it was known if the charge was succeeding in reducing traffic and raising money to re-invest in transport.

If there is a collapse at the call centre or if there is gridlock then clearly the system will have failed

Mayor Ken Livingstone

But he said: "If there is a collapse at the call centre or if there is gridlock then clearly the system will have failed."

However there were no reported delays on the Transport for London congestion payment phone line.

Bob Kiley, London's transport commissioner, told BBC News it was "inconceivable" that there would not be problems but he did not anticipate these would be too difficult to solve.

BBC News Online's Tom Geoghegan found his journey by car from Croydon into Oxford Circus trouble-free and he arrived within 45 minutes.

An RAC spokesman said: "There was not the anticipated early rush of motorists attempting to get across the zone before the 7am start.

"Neither is there increased traffic around the periphery of the zone."

London Underground said it had noticed "no significant difference" in passenger numbers during the rush hour.

This was despite a report last week warning most motorists leaving their cars at home intended to use the Tube

Opposition

But opponents of the scheme have launched a legal challenge calling on the courts to order a review by the mayor of the charge for lower paid workers.

Solicitor Steven Alexander said people who worked on the markets travelled into work in the early hours and drove home against the traffic.

"These people should be taken out of the scheme altogether. Frankly it is unfair."

How scheme works
Charge applies in eight square miles (21 square km)
Charges apply 0700-1830 GMT Monday to Friday, except public holidays
5 flat daily fee in advance or on day
Non-payment fines of up to 120

At Smithfield meat market, Mr Duncan Smith met traders before around 200 workers marched to City Hall.

Mr Duncan Smith said: "It's a nonsense that they are doing this. It is hitting the wrong people."

Market chairman Greg Lawrence said: "Make no mistake - the next march will be 20 times the size of today's and the following march will be 20 times bigger than that".

An extra 11,000 spaces on buses into central London have been created.

TALKING POINT
What do you think of congestion charging?
This is an excellent idea. Stop being selfish or pay the price!

Lou, UK
It is hoped the charge will raise 130m in two years towards improving public transport in London, where average traffic speed has fallen to 10mph.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Simon Montague
"So far London hasn't ground to chaotic gridlock"
Professor David Begg Commission for Transport
"This is very different to a poll tax"
Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London
"If this all goes badly wrong, there is noboby else to blame"
Congestion

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TALKING POINT
 VOTE RESULTS
Do you agree with congestion charges?

Yes
 63.39% 

No
 36.61% 

49889 Votes Cast

Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion

See also:

11 Feb 03 | Politics
17 Feb 03 | England
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