London's road pricing scheme is the first big transport idea since rail privatisation. The rest of the country - and the world - is watchingby Graham Bowley / March 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
On a recent Friday morning, outside the Iceland supermarket near Clapham Common in south London, a crowd of 20 people waited for a bus. It was 7.55am. Nearby, commuters jostled past the stone clock above the tube and down towards the trains. Outside Starbucks, a red light had caught a pack of traffic led by a Mercedes hatchback. Faces pressed against windscreens, drivers waited for the stream of buses and lorries emerging from Clapham Park Road to spend itself out.
This was commuter country. Clapham is a typical residential district that each day supplies the capital’s inner core with thousands of workers-secretaries, bankers, accountants, journalists, nurses, bureaucrats and cleaners. Travelling by tube, train, bus, car or bike, they join the hundreds of thousands of other commuters streaming from the outer suburbs further south. Standing amid Clapham’s noise and crowds, you get a sense of the ebb and flow of the human tide of 1m people washing into central London each day, a pattern repeated in large cities all over the world.
These patterns seem like the unalterable rhythms of modern life. Yet, in London at least, the patterns are about to change. By the time you read this, the capital’s new congestion scheme-which charges drivers ?5 to enter central London-will be in force. You will know whether it has been an early, muted success, or whether the chaos caused by technological failure, drivers seeking routes to avoid the charge, or mass civil disobedience, has marked the beginning of the end of mayor Ken Livingstone’s political career. Most likely it will be somewhere between the two.
Livingstone, so constrained in other ways, has latched onto congestion charging-an idea dreamed up by the free-market right-as his chance to go down in history. And his experiment is being closely watched in big cities around the world. Failure will deal a blow to the growing number of people who believe charging is the only way to prevent the motor car from bringing our 21st-century cities to a choking, deafening standstill.
Since 1952, the number of kilometres driven by British cars and vans has increased by almost 1,000 per cent. During the same period, road capacity has grown by just a quarter. Rising prosperity-along with suburbanisation, school choice and the decline in neighbourhood living-generates more travel. And as people have got richer and vehicles and fuel have got cheaper, there has been a massive…