A New Idea Across The Pond

LONDON-Home to a major financial district, bustling shopping venues, and numerous tourist attractions, central London is a daily destination for millions of commuters and visitors. It's also a warren of narrow streets chockablock with pedestrians and vehicles. Not surprisingly, gridlock often results.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone's solution: a congestion-charge zone. In 2003, with the support of the business community, he surrounded 8 square miles of central London with traffic cameras and began charging cars and trucks about $16 a day to enter. The cameras photograph the vehicles and match license plates against payments made in advance.

Results. Daily traffic into central London fell by 20 percent (70,000 fewer vehicles). Emissions were cut about 15 percent. Average speeds inched up from 8.5 mph to 10 mph. And last year, the fee generated some $212 million in profits, which funded better bus services.

In February, the zone was doubled in size to the west to include such wealthy residential enclaves as Kensington and Notting Hill. This time, however, support is thinner. Lauren Preteceille, a business group spokesperson, calls the extension an inefficient "blunt instrument." Critics fear the enlarged zone could erode the gains of the original because it includes many more residents (who are entitled to a 90 percent discount for driving within the zone). Those people probably avoided the original zone-and its hefty fees-but now, because of the big discount, have less of a disincentive to drive in central London. Government officials admit city center traffic could increase by 5 percent but claim west London congestion will ease by 15 to 22 percent. But at what cost? Some analysts say west London businesses more reliant on driving customers may see their own sales fall.

Pay-to-drive plans continue to gain traction, however. Voters in Stockholm approved a congestion fee last September, and those in Manchester, England, will vote on one soon. Britain is also considering a national system of toll roads. A BBC survey found that 74 percent of Britons oppose road charges, though 55 percent say they could back a plan if money collected helped improve public transportation. Few drivers like paying tolls. But many suspect that traffic jams are a more costly option.

By Thomas K. Grose