The Trouble With London's Traffic Tolls

When privateers took control of a toll road in Chicago, they imposed higher tolls on trucks during peak travel hours. Now public officials want to take a similar tack to relieve congestion in busy city centers. In a February economic report, President George W. Bush cited "congestion pricing" as a way to ease traffic problems. And on Apr. 22, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg proposed charging cars $8 for traveling south of 86th Street in Manhattan on weekdays between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Bloomberg and others hold up London as a model to emulate, but some Londoners are grumbling. Since the city imposed an ambitious congestion-pricing scheme in 2003, it has raised the fee to drive into the most heavily congested parts of town by 60%, to $16, and doubled the area subject to charges. The reasons for fees have also multiplied. Now London Mayor Ken Livingstone plans to use the charge to tackle climate change. By 2009, high-greenhouse-gas-spewing vehicles will have to pay $50 to enter the congestion zone.

Livingstone says the steep prices have resulted in a 20% reduction in traffic, less pollution, and more than $600 million in revenues that are being used to improve public transportation. But some, like Gordon Taylor, chairman of the West London Residents Assn., contend that while there may be fewer cars, they're not moving any faster than they did four years ago, thanks to the addition of new bus and cycle lanes and fleets of new superlong buses. Moreover, he says, the payment scheme is bureaucratic and expensive, with nearly half of the money raised going to its operation. "London has the highest public transport fares in the world and the most expensive and least effective congestion- charging scheme," says Taylor, whose 14,000-member organization has staged four protests against the program.

Richard Fuchs, managing director of Hot & Cold, a supplier of kitchen appliances located inside the tolled zone, agrees. "We've seen sales fall by nearly one-third since the charge was extended westward in February, and we have to pay an additional $4,000 a year for every delivery vehicle we own," he says. "I'm worried whether [our] business will continue to be viable."

A spokeswoman for Transport for London, the division of the mayor's office responsible for the pricing plan, argues that without the new charge, central London would have ground to a halt by now. But for city travelers, the notion of paying a high toll to crawl through traffic hardly seems like a panacea.

By Kerry Capell in London

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