Life in London will never be the same again. The imposition of the congestion charge takes away the fundamental right of freedom of movement for people in the capital. Or so its opponents would have us believe.
The media coverage has virtually ignored the wider transport implications by focusing on the arguments of a few self-interested or politically motivated whingers. But read the articles carefully, and you will find that the authors usually admit that they can afford it but claim to be fighting for the rights of other hapless drivers.
Of course, a few people unlucky enough to have to cross the charging boundary for journeys that are difficult to make without a car — and poor enough for a fiver a day to make a difference — will suffer some pain. The Smithfield meat workers, some teachers and parents balancing childcare with work spring to mind. But the notion of Miss Moneypenny (Samantha Bond) that West End actors need their cars is clearly tendentious, since parking would cost them at least £20 a day and, in any case, NCP has reduced charges in Central London.
In fact, an extra £1,000 (based upon 200 working days a year, allowing for holidays, sickness and car servicing) represents a mere 14 per cent increase on the £7,250 which the AA estimates is the annual cost of running a small car. People will adapt as they do to controlled parking zones and pedestrianisation, both of which are at first unpopular, then generally welcomed.
Moreover, opponents of the charge have not offered any coherent alternative solution to a problem that blights the health and sanity of every Londoner. Jeremy Clarkson’s suggestion of doing away with bus lanes because only losers use buses is about the height of their intellectual efforts. Steve Norris, bizarrely, has suggests the charge is wrong because it will increase congestion in Marylebone while reducing it in Mayfair.
The other big scare story, that public transport will be swamped by people fleeing their cars, does not stand up either. The extra 20,000 journeys at morning peaktime, predicted by Transport for London, will not be noticed on a system that handles seven million passengers a day on buses and the Tube.
In truth, the protesters are no more than an all too vocal minority. Most Londoners I have spoken to are either indifferent to or mildly supportive of the charge. The reason is obvious. Most Londoners never drive into Central London during weekday business hours.
Forget, too, the administrative chaos which will feature in the headlines over the next few days — such as yesterday’s revelation that 45 motorists had already erroneously received fines. When the flak dies down, drivers will have learnt to cope with the charge and Londoners may find they have a rather more pleasant city in which to live.
Livingstone, remember, is a canny politician who has excelled at capturing the public mood ahead of others, as with his Fares Fair campaign in the 1980s. He is confident this scheme will not affect his chances of being re-elected in 2004.
Amid all this skirmishing over a fiver, the real story has been lost: this is the most interesting experiment in transport policy since motor cars were allowed to dispense with the man waving a red flag.
Indeed, cities across the world will be watching to see if London has found an answer to a problem they all share. Congestion is the last bastion of Stalinism, where allocation of resources has been through queueing rather than the conventional mechanism of allowing the market to set the price of a scarce commodity.
Livingstone’s move, therefore, is not born of crazed, anti-car left-wing prejudice but, rather, a perfectly rational policy in keeping with free-market ideas, which were first put forward by a group of civil servants when Ernest Marples was the Transport Secretary in the early 1960s.
The reduction of congestion and the amount of traffic in our cities is an essential prerequisite for making them pleasant places to live in. If Ken Livingstone is successful in reducing congestion even by the predicted 10 or 15 per cent, it will have done everyone in the capital a favour and will make Britain a world leader in at least one respect, a rare event these days.