February 25, 2003
Beginning on Monday, February 17, motorists venturing into the most central and heavily congested part of London, a zone measuring eight square miles (21 square kilometres) are required to pay a charge of £5 (G$1,500) a day. The measure, instituted by London Mayor Ken Livingstone, is an attempt to reduce the congestion, which has seen traffic-speed slow to ten miles per hour, and the money raised is to go towards improving public transportation.
The way the system is devised, drivers entering the specified area will pay the charge between 7:00 am and 6:30 pm from Monday to Friday; public holidays are excluded. Signs have been erected which alert motorists that they are entering the charging area. The fee can be paid either in advance or on the day of travel and this could be done via the internet, over the phone, by text message, in person - at selected newsagents, convenience stores and petrol stations and at self-service machines in some car-parks within the zone.
Once the fee has been paid, the vehicle’s number plate is registered on a database. Some 900 cameras have been erected within the zone, to take close-ups of number plates. These are sent to a computer which records the date and time the images are taken and the number plates are then matched against the database, immediately revealing whether the charge has been paid. Motorists who have not paid by 10:00 pm on the day of travel have to pay a £5 surcharge; those who have not paid by midnight receive a penalty notice for an £80 fine, which is reduced to £40 if paid within 14 days. Those who fail to pay the penalty charge within 28 days will be fined £120. Persistent non-payers may have their vehicles clamped and removed.
The system was set up after other methods to ease congestion, including widening streets and building new roads, failed. While there has been opposition to the charge, on the first day 100,000 drivers paid with 10,000 defaulting; some 45,000 buses, taxis and emergency vehicles, were exempted. It was estimated that there was a 25% reduction in traffic, but this could also have been attributed to the half-term school holiday.
Given the scheme’s heavy reliance on computer and internet technology, and the fact that these systems could be hacked into, infected with viruses or sometimes just collapse on their own, there are bound to be problems. However, the first day was reported to have been smoother than was expected. And by Easter, the mayor expects to make a firm assessment of the scheme’s success. He hopes that in a year, London would realise £130 million from the charge, using £90 million for improving bus services and £4 million for creating safe walking routes to schools.
Georgetown does not experience congestion of the magnitude seen in London, but shopping areas, particularly around markets, prove frustrating to traverse during the rush hour and on shopping days. Since the widening of streets and construction of overpasses and new roads would not be financially feasible, perhaps a similar scheme could be undertaken here. While it would obviously not be of similar dimensions, it could conceivably involve the institution of more no-parking areas, public education on congestion that would encourage drivers to park and walk rather than be threatened with a fine, erection of car parks on unused plots in and around the city and more legwork by traffic policemen who would issue tickets. If the system worked, shopping would be a less unpleasant experience and it could see fewer accidents and less pollution in the city.