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London's New Congestion Charge

The new London congestion charge goes into effect today.

The Economist offers this description:

On February 17th, [London mayor Ken Livingstone] is introducing a £5 ($8)-a-day congestion charge for those driving in eight square miles of central London. The scheme relies on 700 video cameras, which will scan the rear licence-plates of the 250,000 or so motorists who typically enter the area between 7am and 6.30pm during the working week. This information will be matched each night against a database of drivers who have paid the charge either by phone, via the internet or at shops and garages. Except for those with exemptions (the disabled, taxis, nurses, for instance) or residents (who can apply for a yearly licence at a 90% discount), anyone who fails to pay by midnight will be fined £80.
In an accompanying editorial, while criticizing certain aspects of Livingstone's plan, the Economist praises the basic idea as sound:
Other cities have tried similar schemes, but nothing on London's scale. It is a measure of the city's desperation that a socialist mayor is introducing a practice -- road pricing -- normally advocated by free-market rightwingers, from Adam Smith in 1776 to Milton Friedman in 1951. Mr Livingstone is brave. If the scheme works, it will be taken for granted, and if it fails, he will probably lose the next mayoral election.

All over the world, people are finding themselves increasingly bogged down in congestion. Governments can either choose to leave people fuming in their cars (which wastes people's time and pollutes the air) or they can ration road space by regulation or by price. Regulation -- banning people from driving in certain areas at certain times -- is relatively clumsy. Rationing by price is more efficient because it allocates road space to those who value it most...

With their awful commuter trains and creaking underground, Londoners are used to failures in their transport system. That is no reason to shirk a bold attempt to make things better, nor to retreat if it does not work at the first go.

Many people will be watching this experiment carefully. Could it provide a model for the future, including here in the US? One can hope.

The Transport for London congestion charging site can be found here.


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