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On February 17, 2003, Londoners awoke to a peculiar sight: moving cars. Mayor Ken Livingstone’s pay-to-drive plan for Central London began that winter morning and has since cleared queues, quickened commutes, and quieted streets–as well as many critics. Transport of London, the organization responsible for moderating traffic flow in the city, reported in April that congestion in central London is down 30 percent, and Mayor Livingstone, whose own political survival came to rely on that of his traffic plan, was re-elected in June.

The so-called congestion-charging plan encircles a total of eight square miles in the heart of London. All cars entering this zone from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, must pay 5 for the privilege of a day’s travel. Instead of tollbooths, the system relies on more than 200 cameras to keep tabs on drivers, who can pay prior to their journey or on the day of travel via the Web, phone or mail, or at shops and gas stations. Penalties for nonpayment begin after midnight and rise to 120 after a month. Those who reside within the zone get a discount, and taxis, motorbikes, emergency vehicles and alternative-energy cars are among the wheels that are exempt.

London is the most congested city to implement traffic charging, but it is not the first. Singapore has levied fees on its drivers since 1975, and in 1990 Oslo motorists began paying for access to their city’s center. Trondheim and Bergen in Norway, Durham in England, and Rome have systems as well. Edinburgh will probably be next. It’s no surprise that Europe is taking the lead on this issue, says Sam Schwartz, CEO of the traffic consulting firm Sam Schwartz LLC and author of the “Gridlock Sam” column in the New York Daily News. “There is a respect [in Europe] for maintaining the integrity of the city space by not having large roadways or highways intrude on that space,” he says. “I’m jealous.” In the 1980s, when Schwartz was New York City traffic commissioner, he tried to introduce a congestion-charging plan and, he recalls, was “nearly tarred and feathered.”

But will the success of the London plan improve the prospects for congestion charging on this side of the Atlantic? “I predict that just about every major city will look toward congestion charging as one of the tools used to solve traffic congestions,” Schwartz says. Cities with the worst traffic, such as Los Angeles, Houston and Washington, D.C., “will have to come to grips with the fact that they cannot highway their way out of it.” Schwartz believes that drivers should be charged for the amount of time and space they use in a city. “The road user has never paid for the full cost that his or her car is imposing on society,” he says.

Congestion charging is not one-size-fits-all, however. Anthony Downs, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Stuck in Traffic, points out that the London experiment affects only 2 percent of London’s territory and that 85 percent of its citizens already use public transit. “The congestion we have that is most bothersome is in the expressways rather than in central areas,” he says, “and the central areas we have are not as heavily served by public transit.” He sees more promise in high-occupancy toll–or HOT, lanes–which ask a “high price for high speed,” Downs says. Parallel to regular expressway lanes, HOT lanes “at least create the possibility of high-speed movement during peak hours” for those willing to pay, but “do not force people who cannot afford the tolls off the road.”

Livingstone, fresh from his election victory, is looking to enlarge London’s congestion-charging zone. In this country, Schwartz believes that a tipping point is near. “People have had enough,” he says. “Once some mayor somewhere has the courage to propose a congestion charge and enact it–much like Ken Livingstone in London has–other cities will follow suit.”

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