Even London's cabbies are pleased
The `congestion charge' has had the desired effect: Fewer jams
By Jill Lawless
Published May 5, 2003
LONDON -- Nearly three months after the city
started charging motorists to drive into central
London, traffic jams have been reduced, taxis are
unusually abundant and red double-decker buses zip along at 7.5 m.p.h.
In traffic-clogged London, this is progress.
Things are going so well that supporters and earlier critics alike agree that the
ambitious and contentious "congestion charge" is working--at least so far.
With 20 percent fewer private cars clogging the narrow, twisting streets of
central London, even the capital's notoriously complaining cabbies are
impressed. While they grumble that faster journeys are cutting individual fares,
they are happy to spend less time in traffic jams.
"It's made things a lot easier, definitely," taxi driver Barry Gold said. "A lot of
cabbies complain because fares are down. But I think it'll bring people back
Since Feb. 17, motorists have had to pay 5 pounds--about $8--on weekdays
to enter an 8-square-mile zone that includes the financial district and the
entertainment heartland of the West End.
Mayor Ken Livingstone argued that the toll would cut congestion significantly
in the zone, where car traffic was crawling along at horse-and-cart speeds
during the day. He also hopes to net $205 million a year to spend on public
Opponents predicted the charge would hurt business, create gridlock around
the perimeter of the zone and enmesh motorists in bureaucratic chaos.
Yet the results have been largely positive, most people agree.
"In the terms that were set out for it--reducing traffic within the zone--it has
been a success, and there has been no public revolution," said Tony Travers, a
local-government expert at the London School of Economics.
"It was a brave decision for a politician to make. The long-term judgment on
its effect will have to wait."
Transport for London, the agency overseeing the charge, says traffic in the
zone is down by close to the target of 20 percent, with 100,000 people a day
paying the toll. Residents of the zone get a 90 percent discount. Disabled
people, taxis, emergency vehicles, mo-ped riders and cars powered by
alternative fuels are exempt.
More people are taking buses, trains and the subway, known as the Tube. A
month into the toll, the average rush hour bus speed had risen to 7.5 m.p.h.
from 6.5 m.p.h., Transport for London said.
Still, the agency said it will take at least six months to determine whether the
plan meets all its targets.
But opponents' worst fears have not come true. The elaborate technology for
checking toll compliance, which relies on 700 cameras to read license plates
as cars enter the zone from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on weekdays, did not
overload. There was no mass rebellion by angry drivers.
Campaigns against the charge have died down, and the war in Iraq pushed it
off the front page of London's vehemently anti-toll newspaper, The Evening
Many questions remain, however. Some retailers in the zone say sales are off.
But a sagging global economy, a decline in tourism and the two-month
shutdown of a major subway line may have contributed to that.
Some analysts believe traffic will creep back up once people get used to
paying the toll.
"It's like cigarettes," said Gold, the cabbie. "When they went up to a pound
[$1.60] a packet, a lot of people said they'd quit. And sales did slump. But as
soon as the habit kicked back in, sales went back up.
Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune