London Launches Congestion Charging

By George Leposky

If you’re traveling to London, England, and plan to rent a car there, budget an extra £5 (about US$8.20) a day to pay a congestion charge.

Beginning on Monday, February 17, the charge will be imposed each weekday from 7 AM to 6:30 PM on cars, vans, and trucks driven or parked in an eight-square-mile zone in the heart of London.

The congestion-charge zone extends from Hyde Park through London’s main commercial, financial, and shopping districts. It includes such landmarks as Buckingham Palace, Parliament, Picadilly Circus, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Trafalgar Square.

Even though you’re just visiting and driving a rental car, this fee will apply to you. If you try to dodge it, your car-rental company is obligated to snitch on you to the Transport for London authorities. Between them, they can post a hefty penalty to your credit card.

To Combat Gridlock

London’s congestion charge is a Draconian measure to combat gridlock and reallocate transport costs and resources in the city. According to the British Broadcasting Corporation, enough traffic to fill a 25-lane expressway bumper to bumper enters central London between 7AM and 10 AM each weekday morning. That’s about 240,000 vehicles. Once they arrive, they have almost nowhere to go.

The situation has grown progressively worse in recent years. In 1998, the average traffic speed in central London fell below 10 miles an hour.

Transport for London says delays due to congestion cost London and its inhabitants close to $3.3 million a week. The congestion charge is expected to raise net revenues of about $4.1 million a week, which will be spent to improve public-transportation services.

Officials expect the congestion charge to reduce traffic inside the zone by 10 to 15 percent and decrease delays due to congestion by 20 to 30 percent.

Big Brother Is Watching

If you know the vehicle registration number of the car you’ll be using in London, you can pay the congestion charge up to 90 days in advance by going online or by calling an international telephone number. You’ll also be asked for your name, address, telephone number, and credit-card number. If you go to London often, register for a Fast Track card that eliminates the need to provide all this information each time you pay.

If you’re renting a car, pay on arrival for your days in the zone, or daily each time you go into or remain there. As an alternative to online and telephone payment, you can pay in person at one of 1,500 retail locations in the zone or 100 free-standing machines at major public parking lots.

Cameras at 174 entry and exit points and elsewhere within the zone will record your vehicle’s presence there, capturing time-stamped images of the vehicle in its surroundings and of its license-plate number. In addition, mobile patrols will check parked vehicles for compliance.

Each night at midnight, the camera records and patrol reports will be checked against a computer database of payment records. If you pay for a day in the zone after 10 PM that day, you’ll be charged an extra £5. If you fail to pay by midnight, you’ll turn into a pumpkin and receive a penalty notice.

The penalty is £40 (about $66) if you pay within 14 days, £80 (about $131) between 14 and 28 days, and £120 (about $197) after 28 days.

To avoid all this, you might rent a motorbike or scooter instead of a car, or walk and use taxis and public transport. London’s bus and subway systems are among the world’s most efficient, although they are much-maligned by residents who complain of crowding and old, creaky equipment.

Transport for London officials say most of the money raised from the congestion charge will go to modernize equipment and expand service to meet an anticipated increase in demand.

Taking a Long View

If London’s congestion charge proves successful, several other cities in the United Kingdom – and in time even that entire country – may embrace such a concept. The Commission for Integrated Transport, a U.K. government advisory body, has recommended a nationwide program beginning in 2010 to track vehicle movements and bill drivers who enter congestion-charge zones.

The commission chairman, Prof. David Begg, estimated in a 2002 report that congestion in the U.K. could be cut by a nationwide total of 25,000 person-years per calendar year, a 44-percent reduction.

“Our concept,” Begg wrote in the report’s foreword, “is dependent on a nationwide Global Positioning System with smartcard-charged units located in every vehicle. They would be able to detect where and when a vehicle was entering one of our busier roads subjected to part time charging and deduct the appropriate fee.

“With most roads having no charges at all and others a fee based on the amount of congestion, motorists will be able to choose between individual journeys that are either cheaper or shorter than today. The flexibility of this system would put motorists back in control of their journeys and the price they would pay for using our roads.”

George Leposky is editor of Ampersand Communications, a news-features syndicate based in Miami, Florida.

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