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Monday, 17 February, 2003, 11:16 GMT
A stress-free drive to London
Protester at Hyde Park Corner
Protesters demonstrated at the zone boundary

A day ahead of my test drive into central London, I thought I'd try paying the congestion charge in advance.

But my local newsagent did not even know what the charge was, let alone where I could pay for it.

Cyclist at Hyde Park Corner
Cyclists hope to benefit from the toll
He obviously wasn't among the 96% of people in the capital reached by the advertising campaign, according to Transport for London.

The next morning, I left my Croydon home at 0700 GMT, just as the charge was coming into effect.

Usually a drive to the West End at this time of the morning would fill me with dread.

I estimated 90 minutes, maybe less given it was half-term, and doubted any benefits from the charge in central London would impact on the suburbs.

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

The trip got off to a good start and there was one moment on Tulse Hill when the whole road before me was clear on both sides, apart from a couple of buses.

Empty buses

It was like a Ken Livingstone utopia - not even a pigeon in sight.

Brixton - close to the charging zone and usually a nightmare for drivers - was also trouble-free.

But buses were also empty, so there was nothing to suggest drivers had opted for public transport.

The first signpost warning that I was about to get clobbered for 5 was on Kennington Lane, just moments before the boundary at Elephant & Castle.

London was like a ghost town and possessed an eerie beauty

I was braced for a minor panic, maybe drivers swerving across lanes to escape, but it was a picture of calm.

Driving into the zone itself would have been a bit of an anticlimax, had it not been for a handful of protesters with placards.

The cameras must be placed quite discreetly because I couldn't see them.

And the only signs I noticed to mark the spot were on the road itself.

So there's not a great deal to show for a fiver.

Easy parking

But if I'd been in a traffic jam, I might have been able to savour the moment a little more.

Crossing Westminster Bridge and then up Whitehall reminded me of a scene from the film 28 Days Later, when a deadly virus wipes out most of the population.

London was like a ghost town and possessed an eerie beauty.

Further ahead there was another reminder of Ken Livingstone's radical transport policy, with Trafalgar Square undergoing pedestrianisation.

Tube
Will the Tube cope with extra passengers?
Parking spaces were, unsurprisingly, in abundance and I pulled up a stone's throw from Oxford Street in no time.

I looked at my watch and it was 0745 GMT, about half an hour ahead of schedule.

Maybe I had underestimated the effect of the half-term holidays on traffic levels, but the difference had staggered me.

After 0800 GMT, there were more cars in the West End, but cabs still outnumbered other cars.

Pleasure drive

Piccadilly, Holborn and Kingsway were all relatively quiet - hardly the famous "bustling" West End.

A 15-minute delay to my journey into work was down to frustrations with the one-way system, rather than congestion.

Even leaving the zone at Hyde Park Corner and driving up Park Lane saw no obvious increase in traffic, as predicted by opponents of the scheme.

But what about paying for the pleasure of a stress-free drive around central London?

As soon as I got to my desk, I logged on to the congestion charging website www.cclondon.com and paid online. I even got a receipt.


BBC London's guide to congestion charging
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 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
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