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Fee system reduces traffic congestion in London

LONDON — It is the start of London's notorious rush hour, but all is calm at the London Traffic Control Center.

A wall of 18 giant flat-screen televisions displaying traffic flows at key intersections shows anything but congestion, though it is a rainy Friday afternoon.

Since congestion-charging began in central London on Feb. 17, traffic volumes are down by 20 percent to 25 percent, and traffic experts are thrilled with how smoothly the scheme is operating. Drivers must pay to use their vehicles in the city center within certain hours.

In central London, 80 percent of workers use public transport, so it is not unreasonable to ask people to leave their cars at home and take the bus or subway. Despite capacity problems on the ancient London Underground, people have alternatives to their cars that may not exist in other cities.

Under the London scheme, from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on weekdays, drivers of every vehicle spotted in a zone in the city center must pay the equivalent of almost $8 for the privilege. (Only taxis, cars for the disabled and emergency vehicles are exempt.)

Car-registration numbers are recorded by hundreds of cameras throughout the zone, including some that are mobile. If the fee is not paid by midnight, a driver is subject to a fine.

In the first week of the system's operation, more than 450,000 drivers paid the fee at newsstands, over the Internet and by cell phone. Thirty-four thousand drivers were issued $125 tickets for failing to pay the fee, though the penalty is cut in half if payment is made within 14 days.

Predictions of traffic chaos and mass civil disobedience by angry motorists have failed to materialize, and Mayor Ken Livingstone looks like a visionary for daring to try to deal with an issue most politicians have dared not touch.

Traffic is flowing so freely that buses must slow to keep to their schedules.

Mark Acres, who has been driving a cab in London for 15 years, acknowledges it is easier to get around than it was before the charge.

"I'm surprised at how well it seems to have worked and how light traffic is around the zone," he said. However, he complained that with traffic flowing more easily, people reach their destinations more quickly. "I've been doing a lot of waiting around today."

Some London merchants complain that the congestion charge chases away shoppers.

"It's a nightmare," said Nick Lloyd, owner of the Aquatic Design Center, which sells tropical fish and services aquariums from a base in central London.

He said many customers who use their cars to pick up fish avoid the shop because of the charge, and his trucks are forced to pay the fee daily. He said he would move out of central London if he could.

Charging fees to enter cities with transit systems that are less well-developed could be a problem, said Tony Travers, director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics.

"If you drove trade from a city center and into out-of-town malls, that would undermine the very reason for doing it. It would be a disaster for the policy."

Places as diverse as New York, Moscow and Sydney have shown interest in congestion-charging. Transport Minister David Collenette has said cities should take a look at London.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service