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Tuesday, 18 February, 2003, 15:10 GMT
Strange day in London
Congestion charge zone
Chasing non-paid fines may prove tricky

The introduction of the world's most ambitious traffic congestion charge scheme is being hailed a success so far but is it too soon to sing the praises of London's scheme?

It was a strange day in London.

Roads normally thick with traffic were an expanse of space.

Residents talked of being able to hear birdsong for the first time in years.

It has been claimed the average speed of traffic doubled overnight.

Of course London Mayor Ken Livingstone was shooting at an open goal.

Monday, 17 February, was a school holiday and Mr Livingstone had been carefully clearing away any roadworks he had any say over for the big day.

For now in London more people are using the buses, and traffic congestion is down

Tom Symonds

But on a normal school holiday traffic drops by no more than 15% in Central London. On Monday the fall was 25%.

So for now this huge traffic management experiment is working.

But like any drive through London, down the road the congestion charge could grind to a halt.

Up to 10,000 drivers refused or forgot to pay the congestion charge.

Sources at Transport for London (TfL) say they are not surprised.

But, if the mayor's officials have to generate and chase up 10,000 fines a day, keeping the system running could prove difficult and expensive.

The real problem will be persistent non-payers.

Mr Livingstone has vowed to clamp anyone who fails to pay three fines.

Continuing high levels of charge evasion could also be evidence of a fledgling "can't pay, won't pay" poll-tax style protest.

But 100,000 people did pay, generating up to 500,000 for the city's transport systems.

In a year London is expected to make 130m from the charge.

Of this 90m will go on improving bus services including putting CCTV cameras on buses.

A total of 300 extra buses are on the streets already.

And 4m will be spent on creating safe routes to schools - pedestrian zones with low-speed limits, road humps and cycle lanes.

Road improvements

But controversially, a significant proportion of the charge money will be ploughed back into the roads.

A total of 36m will go on road safety but Transport for London says in future money will be spent on road improvements.

Congestion charge
Traffic was down by 25% on Monday
This is Mr Livingstone's insurance policy against a backlash from drivers.

If they are paying 5 a day to drive, but seeing no visible improvements in traffic or the quality of London's streets, the charge could quickly lose public support.

Senior officials at TfL are working on major schemes to improve the city's road network including new crossings across the River Thames.

Knock-on effect

The success of the charge so far could have far-reaching effects for transport policy in the entire country.

More than 30 towns and cities are considering schemes of their own.

Monday's events could even thaw the government's icy detachment from the whole idea of paying to use roads.

At least one minister - John Spellar - is resolutely opposed to congestion charges.

The party line is to say London's scheme is a matter for Mr Livingstone alone.

But there are hints the government is becoming more enthusiastic.

Westminister sources have told the BBC the prime minister has begun talking of the need for a debate about road charges.

It has even been suggested the government could produce a green paper on the issue in the spring.

For now, Ken Livingstone appears to be leading the way in resolving Britain's problems.

For now in London more people are using the buses, and traffic congestion is down.

In the rest of the country, the opposite is true.

Congestion

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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:

18 Feb 03 | England
11 Feb 03 | Politics
17 Feb 03 | England
18 Feb 03 | England
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