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Charging problems - Six months of congestion charging in London 26/09/2003
Next month, the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone is due to present his first report on the controversial congestion charging scheme he introduced in February of this year. It will come against a background of continuing opposition from certain politicians and sections of the retail industry as well as a significant number of motorists. Next Spring, the mayor faces an election in which his chief opponent has vowed to scrap the whole idea of a charging zone. Livingstone himself has admitted that his political future depends almost entirely on the public's perception of the success or otherwise of the experiment but remains confident that he will be re-elected. Meanwhile, around the world, major cities including New York, Chicago and Milan, are watching events with close interest with a view to introducing their own congestion charging scheme. So what is happening in London and what is the future of its plan's for expanding the principle of congestion charging?

Whatever the arguments for and against the principle of congestion charging in the English capital, the logistical problems inherent in the introduction of a scheme which currently covers eight square miles of one of the most densely populated areas in the world, were immense. At the time, his opponent for the job of Mayor, the former Minister for Transport, Steven Norris, described the timetable as 'heroic' and doubted that it could be achieved. Yet, despite this, the whole process of planning, consultation and deployment of the necessary hardware and software was undertaken in less than two years.

The fact that it was achieved - and on time - is due in part to a decision to use a paper-based system of payments, coupled with off-the-shelf technology for enforcement.

"The enforcement infrastructure was proven technology, deliberately chosen so that it would work from day one," said Malcolm Murray-Clark, the joint head of the Congestion Charging Division of Street Management.

Whether that decision was right or wrong has been the subject of scrutiny in the press and elsewhere, ever since, and the mixed fortunes that the scheme has enjoyed since its inception has enabled both sides of the argument to claim credit for the validity of their views. One of the better publicised outcomes, has been a larger than expected reduction in the total number of vehicles entering the charging zone, with the obvious corollary of a reduced income for TfL. In turn, this has meant a shortfall in the Mayor's budget and the threat of significant curtailments in the number of transport-related projects that were expected to benefit from the extra cash. Perhaps more seriously, the Mayor was forced, in July, to re-negotiate the deal with Capita, the service provider, or risk seeing the company going into liquidation, with all that that entailed in practical and political terms.

Giving evidence at a London Assembly budget committee hearing in September, Livingstone admitted that the initial performance of Capita was so poor that the whole scheme was nearly scrapped. One recipient in seven of a PCN (Penalty Charge Notice) ignored it, he told the committee.

The traffic modeling that was undertaken before the beginning of the project indicated that traffic entering the charging zone would reduce by between 10% and 15% in direct consequence of the requirement to pay a 5 (6.94 Euro) a day charge. In the event, the reduction in traffic has been a relatively constant 16% overall and a 38% reduction in private cars. This, together with a disappointing enforcement rate, has resulted in a 64 million (88.89 million Euro) deficit in the expected income of 214.5 million (297.23 Euro) in the 2003/04 budget. "The greater than expected reduction in the number of cars entering the zone is the aspect which has caused the problem," said a spokesman for TfL. "Private cars were always seen as our biggest source of income. In addition to that, the number of PCNs issued to non-payers has not been as high as we would have liked."

Under the new arrangements with Capita, TfL has agreed to pay the company an additional 31 million (43.06 million Euro) over the next four and a half years, contingent upon improved performance, including the issue of more PCNs. In a statement at the end of July, TfL's managing director for surface transport, Peter Hendy, claimed that the additional cash payable to Capita would 'pay for itself' over the contract period.

There are, however, continuing doubts over the ability of the Mayor to balance the budget. According to figures released by TfL, the Mayor will face a deficit of 600 million (833.33 million Euro) by 2005/6; a figure the government has made clear it will not bridge. Even an above-inflation rise in 'bus fares, announced in August, will only raise an extra 81 million (112.5 million Euro) and Livingstone is faced with some difficult choices.

Despite the growing financial crisis or perhaps because of it, Livingstone invited expressions of interest, in July, from firms wishing to design and specify a more advanced technological system that will allow for a fully automated electronic tolling and enforcement process.

The technologies expected to be looked at include digital cameras for roadside use, more advanced ANPR (automatic number plate reading) systems than those at present in use, and vehicle image processing to determine vehicle shape and class. Also in the list are spatial detection systems, intended to uniquely identify and position individual vehicles, in addition to obtaining their images. Testing of the new technologies is expected to take place between November this year and March 2006, either in London or at suitable test and demonstration facilities.

But the problems faced by the introduction of a congestion area were not confined to the financial and managerial systems. Advance research had indicated that an additional 20,000 public transport seats a day would be required to cater for those people deterred from using their cars. There was also a question hanging over the number of vehicles that would attempt to avoid entering the charge zone at the last moment and their effect on congestion at the periphery of the zone.

There is not much doubt that the bus companies have done well out of the scheme. One company, Arriva, who has a fifth of the London 'bus market, reported in September, a 12% rise in pre-tax profits, mainly as a result of the 250 additional 'buses that it now operates in the capital. This compares with a minimal growth in 'bus patronage outside London.

On the issue of congestion at the edges of the zone, this appears not to have materialised although a great deal of work was carried out, prior to February this year, on the re-phasing of traffic lights to try and obviate the problem.

What then is the future for congestion charging in London? The Mayor is faced with the prospect of a substantial increase in the level of tax he imposes on Londoners or a significant scaling back of his subsidies to public transport operators if he hopes to maintain his congestion charge.

Waiting in the wings is Steven Norris, his chief opponent at the Spring 2004 elections, who seldom passes up the opportunity to attack the Mayor's policy on this issue. Norris has repeatedly said that he will, if elected, abolish the project yet one insider, who knows him well, has indicated that the final decision is far from having been made. Much depends on the attitude of Londoners next Spring and that may depend upon how much extra they are asked to pay in support of congestion charging. The reality of the charging zone is for most, theoretical, since, geographically, it covers a mere 1% of London. A suggested precept of 200 (277.78 Euro) per household, throughout London, to pay for the project might well give them reason to care.

For further information, visit:
Malcolm Murray-Clark, Head of Congestion Charging Division, Street Management, Transport for London (TfL). E-mail: mmurrayclark@tfl.gov.uk.
Press contact; Graham Goodwyn. 0207 941 4607 or grahamgoodwyn@tfl.gov.uk
See also:
www.tfl.gov.uk for details of the re-negotiated agreement between TfL and Capita.
 
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