By Amanda Ripley, 16 Feb 03
Two thousand years ago, the streets of Rome had become fetid and knotted with traffic. Local rulers became so fed up that they declared: "The circulation of the people should not be hindered by numerous litters and noisy chariots." It was an early salvo in what would become an endless, thankless, unwinnable war. Around the same time, Julius Caesar introduced the first off-street parking laws. In A.D. 125, a limit was placed on the number of vehicles that could enter Rome. For as long as there have been roads, it seems, there have been crowds of swearing, sweaty drivers — and schemes to get rid of them. But now traffic is so bad — costing the European Union €40 billion a year — that some cities are getting serious about fighting back.
This week, London careers into Europe's most radical traffic-control experiment of the past half-century. Every vehicle that enters the city center must render unto the modern Caesar — Mayor Ken Livingstone and his Greater London Authority — a €8 charge. Seven hundred cameras are recording all license plates, and those who don't pay are fined at least €60. You would think, judging by the public uproar, that drivers were being asked to hand over their bone marrow. A London law firm is seeking an injunction to stop the charge, calling it the "biggest single-tax increase in U.K. history." A rabbi whose synagogue is in the charge zone told the Observer: "This building was bombed in the war, but Livingstone is going to cause more damage than the Germans." And one particularly motivated protester plans to ride into the zone on a horse and cart, singing an abusive song about the mayor.
But it is a testament to how desperate traffic conditions have become that Livingstone is pushing ahead with the plan anyway. "It's not something we would do if we could avoid it," he said last week on the eve of the scheme's debut. As most Londoners are by now keenly aware, Livingstone does not drive. So he did not seem too distraught when he conceded that the first days of the congestion charge "will clearly be bloody."
If it works, London could pave the road to the future of cities everywhere. The rationalist's dream is one day to make drivers pay for exactly the amount they contribute to traffic jams: the more they drive, the bigger their car, the closer to rush hour, the higher the price. For half a century, economists and engineers have insisted that this strategy — "congestion charging" — is the best and fairest way to reduce traffic. But driving and rationality do not always share the same lane. For just as many years, politicians have instead tried cajoling drivers out of their cars — providing better public transport, tax incentives, free bikes — with little to show for it. Now, some European cities are trying tough love. They are finally, haltingly, aiming to make things unbearable for the rush-hour driver — to shove him violently out of his car.
Think of it as a collective intervention, confronting drivers about their addiction in order to save them. Bertrand Delanoë, the mayor of Paris, has launched a campaign against traffic jams, known as bouchons (also the word for the cork of a wine bottle). His first major act has been to impose new bus and bike lanes on busy boulevards, squeezing out car space and increasing average bus speeds by 3 km/h. Traffic lights in London are being tweaked to favor pedestrians. And Zurich has imposed a zero-sum parking policy: no new garages can be built without first eliminating parking somewhere else in the city.
Over the years, several other countries (including the Netherlands and Sweden) have got tantalizingly close to congestion charging, only to abandon the idea when public antagonism became too terrifying. People will accept paying higher charges for daytime phone calls or primetime movies, but they recoil at paying for roads they thought of as free.
Of course, if Livingstone's plan fails, it will be another generation before congestion charging is tried again in Europe. So it's too bad that London is the test case. Its public transit system was creaking and fragile and stretched to the limit — even before the 20,000 more daily riders expected this week. And Londoners themselves, from long experience, tend to be wryly pessimistic about bold attempts at social engineering. "The charge will simply shift congestion [elsewhere]," says Gary Jennings, a self-employed removal man. "Ken's a bit naive if he thinks this is going to sort out the congestion problems." Concludes Bernhard Oehry, a traffic consultant in Switzerland: "There's a reasonable chance it won't work."
Europe's leaders have embraced the policy goal of making life miserable for drivers partly because we were doing such a good job of it ourselves. Last August, French families leaving for vacation were trapped in jams clogging nearly 800 km of roadway. The Transport Ministry dubbed it the worst traffic day in French history. Then last month, thousands of Parisians returning from holiday spent the night in their cars after icy weather paralyzed traffic. French officials distributed chocolate and coffee, a small gesture of humanity in a sea of barbarity. One recent Friday night in central London, Corinne Truss spent 4 1/2 hours driving 5 km to one of her catering jobs. "I called the police, and they said people had been sent out to direct traffic," she remembers. "But they were stuck in traffic."
How did we all get trapped in our cars? The automobile was, you'll recall, supposed to revolutionize our quality of life. And for a brief and shining moment, it did. During the salad days of London traffic in the 1970s, when Margaret Thatcher proclaimed that "nothing should be allowed to stand in the way of the great car economy," cars blazed through London at 12-14 km/h during rush hour. Ad campaigns trumpeted the power and comfort of the private car, and people were seduced because, after all, it seemed true. If the city is the apogee of public life, the car became our private sanctuary from it. The little corner of London — or Paris or Madrid — on wheels that is mine, mine, mine.
Today, however, the average traffic speed in London is just over 9 km/h. On some key roads, it has slowed to 2.9 km/h — slower than horse-and-cart days, slower than the rats running in the gutters. Londoners have the worst average commute time at 51 minutes per person, according to a recent survey, but Amsterdam residents only do four minutes better.
It did not have to be this way. "London's traffic and transport problems are just absurdly unnecessary," says Richard Bourn, spokesman for Transport 2000, an independent British organization promoting sustainable transport. City planners have long known that building new roads is not a good answer to traffic jams. Even if cities can find the space (and most European cities cannot), new road space usually only leads to new traffic, unleashing latent driving demand. The M25 motorway around London, the classic example, was built to allow for 30 years of traffic growth. It was jammed within six months. Traffic is like water: it oozes across all available surface. Damming the flow requires a brave — or suicidal — politician.
For better or worse, "Red Ken" Livingstone fits that description. A born Londoner with a common touch and a feisty history, he alone could dare prescribe such rough medicine and have a hope his citizens would swallow it. And so here we are: starting on Monday at 7 a.m., the first car that crossed the big C painted on every artery leading into London's heart had its picture snapped by at least three cameras. The license plate details were then sent to a central computer system, which checked that the driver had paid his €8. For now, the list of exemptions is short — including the disabled, emergency- service vehicles and taxis. Everybody else has until midnight to pay — by phone, text-messaging, online or by visiting one of thousands of convenience stores — although the charge doubles after 10 p.m. Those who don't pay will be mailed a €120 fine. More than three outstanding penalties, and a car can be clamped or towed away.
Livingstone hopes to slash by 15% the 200,000 cars that come into central London every business day. It's not inconceivable. When the historic cathedral city of Durham (pop. 81,000) implemented a similar scheme with only a €3 charge last October, traffic fell by an astounding 90% and stayed there. Durham's plan may be child's play compared to London: it affects only a half-square-kilometer area and the list of exempt vehicles is lengthy (a mere 100 people are charged each day). Even so, one person a day simply refuses to pay up.
When opponents to London's charging start talking, it is easy to see why the policy has not caught on elsewhere. "I'm not paying a tax just because some [jerk] hates cars. I'm taking my business elsewhere. This ain't the city I was born in," writes a visitor to the popular Sod-U-Ken website. Some portion of the complaints are legitimate. After decades of underfunding and neglect, Greater London's public transit system is often late and sometimes lethal, leaving many commuters with few options. The profits from the new charge will be used to rehabilitate the system, but that will take time. Many Londoners find it hard to believe that the capital's transit authority can manage such a massive scheme; indeed, the payment site, , has already crashed multiple times.
Still, the emotional attachment to free roads cannot be underestimated. Tony Vickers of the Association of British Drivers sees the rights of man at stake. "The truth is, it's not cars that people love. It's their freedom of mobility. I wouldn't give up my freedom of speech or my right to vote, and I'm very, very reluctant to give up my freedom of mobility. Because that's what makes my life what it is." Never mind that he has already lost much of his mobility. (Drivers in central London spend a third of their journeys at a standstill.)
Rebellion has already taken hold in some corners. Newspapers and websites have shared suggestions for dodging the charge: from high-tech devices that blur the number plate at the flick of a switch to cruder tactics like rubbing mud all over the tag. Motorists Against Detection, which claims to have destroyed hundreds of speed cameras throughout the U.K., plans to torch, spray-paint and run over the congestion-fee cameras, too. "We've clearly paid for these roads already," says a member of the group, who declines to be named. "We're like sheep. The French wouldn't have it."
Driving has never been an entirely logical exercise. Motorists make emotional decisions about when to pass, for example, and tend to think the lane next to them is going faster even when it isn't, according to research by Donald Redelmeier of the University of Toronto and Robert Tibshirani of Stanford University. And once in a jam, they're apt see themselves only as victims rather than part of the problem.
There is, however, one big city where congestion charging has become an accepted part of life: Singapore. Granted, that city also accepts caning. But it's the one comparable model, and the results have been tremendous. A charging scheme has been in place for more than 25 years. Today, each car entering the city center passes by a sensor that reads a "smart card" installed in the dashboard. The charge, which varies from €0.50 to €3 depending on the time of day, is automatically deducted. Every three months, officials tweak the rates to adapt to changing traffic patterns. Driving into Singapore, the success of the system is obvious. Average rush-hour speeds are between 20 and 30 km/h. It is rare to be caught in a traffic jam caused by anything other than an accident.
And still, some Singapore drivers resent the charge — which, truth be told, comes on top of already onerous car taxes. It's not unusual to see a line of cars pulled over on the shoulder just before the charging zone, waiting for 7 p.m. when they can get by for free.
In Europe, it remains much more popular to dance around the edges of the traffic problems than to get brutally efficient. Last September, Athens officials closed the city center to cars for 2 1/2 hours to encourage Greeks to try public transport. The resulting traffic jams spiked the carbon monoxide level by 50%. Athens has also adopted alternate-plate driving days, whereby cars are allowed in every other day depending on the last digit of their license number. But car ownership actually rose: drivers bought a second car with different plates so that they could drive every day.
There are a few success stories, though. The tram system in Strasbourg has become a model for Europe. A decade after its construction, the number of bus commuters has stayed constant and 190,000 additional people now take the tram each day. An elaborate and expensive system of underground tunnels and new perimeter roads has vastly improved the traffic situation in Oslo (which also has a toll cordon, though designed to finance the new roads and not to reduce traffic).
But overall, "the choices are becoming more and more stark," says Bourn, of Transport 2000. This week, as the mayor of London hovers over his sword, his counterparts around the world will be watching. As for the good citizens of London, everyone seems to have his or her own plan. Joanne Cohen, co-founder of the Sod-U-Ken site, finds her neighborhood newly divided. She lives just outside the zone and will now reconsider routine trips to the grocery store or friends' houses. Tory M.P. Michael Fabricant predicts administrative chaos and has vowed to go to jail rather than pay the fine if he ever gets unfairly penalized. And the undertakers Leverton & Sons, who have to cross the charging boundary at least once a day to collect corpses from hospitals, are resigned to passing the charge on to their customers.
Livingstone himself is taking the long view. "I recall the sackfuls of hate mail I got when I first suggested the British government should talk to Gerry Adams. I suspect it may not be quite as risky as that."
Reported by Helena Bachmann/Geneva, Theunis Bates and Michael Brunton/London, Penny Campbell/Durham, Anthee Carassava/Athens, Abi Daruvalla/Amsterdam, Peter Gumbel and Grant Rosenberg/Paris, Joe Kirwin/Brussels, Angela Leuker/Vienna, Mimi Murphy/Rome, Ulla Plon/Copenhagen, Charles P. Wallace and Regine Wosnitza/Berlin and Genevieve Wilkinson/Singapore