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Londoners wail anew as mayor hits choked streets via wallets

Tom Hundley
Chicago Tribune

LONDON - "I hate cars," Ken Livingstone told an interviewer back in 1999. "If I ever get any powers again I'd ban the lot."

A few months later, the outspoken Livingstone got himself elected mayor of London, and while he hasn't been able to actually ban the automobile from his city's streets, he has made driving in London a very expensive proposition.

In 2003, London became one of the first major cities to establish a traffic congestion charge zone. Motorists driving their cars in the city center between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. are now obliged to pay a $16 daily fee. The fine for violators is $200.

This week, Livingstone doubled the size of London's congestion zone, extending it westward into some the city's poshest residential districts. The total area is now 6.5 square miles.

The mayor says he hopes to increase the fee to $20 next year, with a special super-sized congestion charge of $50 on the cars he hates most - those gas-guzzling, road-hogging, American-style sport-utility vehicles. They are known here as "Yank tanks."

The latest expansion of the congestion zone has been greeted with anguish by some, a stiff upper lip by others.

"We're not enthusiastic at all," said Hugh Blandon, a spokesman for the Association of British Drivers. "The original congestion zone is just as crowded as it ever was.

"What happens is that people back off for a little while. Maybe they try alternative means of transport but eventually they just swallow the pain. People need to drive to get to work and go about their business."

The charge is particularly hard on small businesses and their suppliers. One study said the extension of the congestion zone would cost as many as 6,000 jobs. Even people who don't drive get stuck with the charge. For example, a person living in the zone who hires a plumber from outside the zone can expect that the congestion charge will be added to his bill.

But the mayor's war on cars also has its supporters.

"The congestion charge has reduced congestion, increased bus and bike use and cut carbon dioxide emissions," said Tony Bosworth, a spokesman for Friends of the Earth.

Livingstone, whose far left leanings and open admiration for Latin American leaders like Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez have earned him the nickname Red Ken, said he was pleased with the results.

"London is again taking the lead in tackling the problem of traffic congestion and emissions which blight virtually every major city in the world," he said.

Livingstone says that congestion charging has cut the number of cars coming into the city center each day by 70,000, or 20 percent, and reduced emissions by 15 percent.

The congestion zone also brought in about $490 million last year, about 30 percent of which came from fines. Most of the profits, which came to about $244 million, will be invested in the city's bus network.

London's buses are among the most expensive in the world. The regular fare is about $4. But Livingstone this week struck an unusual deal with Venezuela's President Chavez to supply London buses discount fuel. The savings, reportedly worth $32 million a year, will be passed on to pensioners in the form of half-price bus fares.

Whether the charges really cut down congestion is still a topic of debate among urban planners and traffic experts.

Despite the reduced number of cars in the city center, journey times in London remain among the longest in the world, according to some studies. Others suggest that it simply relocates the congestion to the zone's peripheries. A common sight in London these days is a long line of cars, engines idling, waiting just outside the zone until 6 p.m.

A number of cities, including Oslo and Singapore, have established congestion zones. Others are studying the London experiment.

Would the idea work in the U.S.? Probably not, judging from the American Embassy's reaction. The embassy has refused to pay more than $2 million in fines that it has accumulated since 2005, making it Britain's biggest scofflaw.

The embassy's argument is that the congestion charge is a tax, not a toll, and that diplomats are exempt from all host nation taxes. After this week's enlargement of the congestion zone to include 80 more embassies, several other nations have said they would be joining the U.S. protest.

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