Livingstone: Businesses Led on Congestion Charge

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Fearing that London's ever-worsening traffic congestion would drive industry to other European cities, business leaders first broached the topic of congestion charging for the British capital, according to plan architect Mayor Ken Livingstone.

At a C40 Climate Summit panel entitled "Beating Congestion & Surviving Your Next Election," Livingstone said Tuesday that the business group London First had estimated the economic cost of congestion to the city at two billion pounds (almost four billion dollars) per year. Contending with bottle-necked auto traffic and "unpredictable" public transportation, Livingstone said, business people could not estimate inner-city travel times to within 40 minutes. It was just a matter of time before industry began packing up for Paris or other urban centers, London employers believed.

Four years after the congestion charge went into effect, automobile traffic is down by 20 percent while commercial traffic has increased, and London's economy is growing at three times the national average. Meanwhile, a proposal to charge the heaviest polluting private vehicles the equivalent of $50 per day is pulling a 78 percent approval rating.

Livingstone referred to London First as a "parallel organization" to the Partnership for New York City, a business group which supports congestion pricing. The Partnership has released a report concluding that gridlock costs New York $13 billion annually.

"The business community does not come forward and recommend a charge on itself unless it recognizes there is a real problem," Livingstone said. He acknowledged that London First was "concerned" about the widening of the charging zone earlier this year, but downplayed the fervor of the opposition. After all, he noted, "Driving in a city like London or New York isn't a life-enhancing experience."

As for the political impact, Livingstone "coasted easily" to a second term. In fact, he said, the congestion charge was more of a problem for his opponent, as many who weren't entirely happy with the plan were even less excited with the prospect of bringing congestion back. If elected to succeed Prime Minister Tony Blair, Livingstone suspects Gordon Brown will move forward with a national road pricing scheme for Britain.

Speaking later at a press conference in Central Park, Mayor Livingstone offered advice for New York as it debates a system modeled on his own.

"There may be one or two people who predict gloom and doom," he said. "Ignore them."