London doubles size of its controversial pay-to-drive zone

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Jane Morris didn't have to wait until this week to know what a new toll on driving in her district would do to her upholstery and interior design shop.

After all, vehicles are essential to her business, she muses, surveying the fabrics and soft furnishings of the quaint west London boutique she has run for 25 years. Delivery men, carpenters, tradesmen, carpet fitters, and, of course, the customers all need vehicles.

"You can't really carry pieces of furniture home on public transport, can you?" she asks.

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Starting this week, they might have to. Monday, London's controversial toll zone, in which motorists pay an £8 ($15.60) daily fee to drive, was extended westward into the upscale neighborhoods of Chelsea and Knightsbridge – home to such landmarks as Harrods department store. At almost 16 square miles, it's nearly double its original size.

For Ms. Morris, that will mean the loss of some regular customers.

"Already, we have had three customers saying they shan't be coming in any more," says Morris. "We are going to see a big drop in customers. If it takes out 10 to 20 percent of our business, it will be very serious."

Morris is one of many railing against government moves – local and national – to charge motorists for using a road network that is expected to otherwise become increasingly congested in the decades ahead. In west London there is strong opposition to Mayor Ken Livingstone's scheme to extend the world's biggest congestion charge zone. Nationwide, more than 1.5 million people have signed a petition against plans to introduce in the next decade a "pay-as-you-go" road-pricing system where cars are tracked and charged automatically.

Mr. Livingstone argues the new toll zone will ease congestion in the Kensington and Chelsea areas by 15 to 20 percent. He says congestion has been cut by more than 20 percent in the original zone, and tolls raised more than £120 million ($234 million) last year for investment, primarily in public transport. Traffic has fallen in one of Europe's most congested areas since the charge was instituted in February 2003. London authorities also claim that harmful emissions have been cut by 15 percent. Sales of environmentally friendly cars – as defined by the TransportEnergy Powershift Register (www.powershift.org.uk) – which are exempted from charges, have jumped.

"The congestion charge has so far been a very considerable success," says Professor Stephen Glaister, a transport expert and member of the Transport for London (TfL) executive board. "It met its objective of reducing traffic by what was expected. It has not raised quite as much money because trip patterns changed."

But critics say the scheme is costly, flawed, and primitive. Businesses say half of all firms have seen a drop in profits since the 2003 charge was brought in. Half of all revenue drummed up by the charge goes to technology and running costs.

Opponents point out that although several cities worldwide have implemented congestion charging, few are emulating London's expensive system, which deploys hundreds of cameras to read license plates, check fee-payers against a computer database, issue fines to delinquents, and follow up on those who still don't pay.

Far more popular is the "tag and beacon" system, most successfully modeled by Singapore, in which roadside monitors read in-car sensors, payment is made automatically, and roads can be priced according to how busy they are.

The second criticism is that the funds raised have not transformed public transport sufficiently to make it a viable alternative for travelers and commuters. Rush-hour trains and subway services are still dismally busy, and the cost of a single subway fare has skyrocketed to £4 ($8).

The western extension, is, if anything, even more controversial than the original scheme. A TfL survey found 63 percent of residents and 72 percent of firms were opposed to the extension. Other research by the Centre for Economic and Business Research, an economics consulting firm, found that businesses in the zone could lose more than £200 million ($389 million), at a cost of 6,000 job losses. Business organization London First likened congestion charging to taking "a sledgehammer to pick a lock."

Local residents say that only 5 percent of their roads ever suffer from congestion, and say average speeds are around 25 m.p.h.

And as all 60,000 local drivers qualify for a 90-percent discount on the charge, many will now be able to circulate cheaply in central London. TfL officials admit that this will cause congestion to rise 4 percent in the original zone.

Nothing aggravates middle England more than an assault on the right to drive. Seven out of 10 British passenger journeys are by car – in a country barely half the size of California. But with more vehicles (33 million) than America's most populous state, many transport experts say something has to be done to avert wider gridlock. "What else are we going to do? Build roads? Or let it get worse?" asks Glaister.

A recent report commissioned by the government recommended that nationwide road pricing could cut congestion in half. Officials anticipate tolls of up to £1.28 on the busiest roads in peak periods. But the proposal is still years away from being introduced, and the authorities will face a tough task in selling it to the public, as the petition demonstrates.

"I don't think people trust the government," says Peter Roberts, the man who posted the petition on the Downing Street website. "They see this as a stealth tax."

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