London loves it, but will S.F.? 

When the federal transportation secretary, Mary Peters, came to San Francisco last week to praise The City’s congestion-pricing plans, she said that "Americans are looking for these types of transportation solutions."

Answers might have been found sooner had the United States looked across the Atlantic to London, which has had a congestion-pricing program in place for its city center since 2003.

The idea behind congestion pricing is to charge more for resources — such as parking and roadway use — that are widely used, in an attempt to curb demand.

The push to implement a congestion charge to drive into central London during weekday work hours came from the business community, the city’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, said.

"The level of congestion was a real disincentive for firms to move here or to stay here," Livingstone told The Examiner. "We didn’t do it for the hell of it; we did it because we had to."

Since the congestion charges — currently $16 per vehicle — were imposed in downtown London in 2003, traffic levels within the 8-square-mile area have fallen by 20 percent, according to the city’s transportation agency, Transport for London.

Stockholm has also enacted congestion pricing; New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is currently championing a plan to charge drivers entering Manhattan. Singapore’s congestion pricing program dates back to 1975.

When asked why he thought most major cities are only now embracing the idea of charging higher fees for high-demand roadways, Livingstone attributed it to "political cowardice."

"We had a government report in 1964 saying this would work. People were always terrified that whoever did it will be voted out of office," he said.

San Francisco, which recently received approximately $140 million from a federal transportation grant that came with a requirement that some of the funding be used for congestion pricing, is studying the feasibility of implementing a downtown congestion charge. The idea has not been embraced by The City’s business leaders, who fear that a restriction on cars would drive businesses — and customers — away.

In August, Mayor Gavin Newsom told The Examiner that he’d prefer The City to cautiously study the potential impacts of a downtown congestion charge, adding, "We’re not London, we’re not New York and we’re certainly not Stockholm."

Livingstone said that while he couldn’t comment on whether San Francisco would benefit from a downtown congestion charge, he noted that in London, sales have increased inside the congestion zone by 6 percent, while in other parts of the city, there’s been only a 2 percent increase. That said, he concedes that while big businesses support the idea, "small shopkeepers were always hostile and continue to be hostile" to the idea.

Congestion pricing has also raised concerns with civil libertarians, who say citizens are getting less congestion at the price of less privacy, because London’s newest program has been conducted through cameras that photograph cars and record license numbers.

Londoners have become quite accustomed to cameras, even requesting them in parts of the city for safety reasons, Livingstone said. The images that are captured for congestion-pricing purposes are not used for any other purpose, he added, "except when the police request access to data for a serious crime."

In addition to reducing traffic and cleaning up the air, the funds from congestion pricing in London — $250 million last year — are used for citywide transportation improvements. Livingstone said one of his next steps is to reduce pollution in London by abolishing the congestion charges for low-emissions vehicles and raising the price for gas-guzzlers. The plan is currently under legal review, he said.

Livingstone enjoys ‘nitpicking’ question time

London’s leader can certainly relate to some of the challenges facing Mayor Gavin Newsom, including colorful challengers for their jobs and the demand to be publicly questioned each month. Newsom is fighting a ballot measure based on a British policy that would require him to have a monthly public policy discussion with the Board of Supervisors. Modeled after the weekly prime minister’s question time in the British Parliament, the idea is championed by Supervisor Chris Daly. Newsom says the monthly sessions will only result in "political theater."

London Mayor Ken Livingstone — who does a monthly 2½-hour question time with the London Assembly — agreed that the events are "purely political" and often "tedious and nitpicking." Because questions — often hundreds — are submitted to him ahead of time, he said his staff spends hours researching and writing responses, only about 20 of which get aired in public.

"But I often enjoy it," Livingstone said. "It keeps me in touch with people."

And just as the San Francisco media has focused on the most-out-of-the-ordinary challengers Newsom faces for his re-election bid — including a nudist and a homeless cabdriver — the London press has giddily grasped upon an announcement last week that Russell Brand, a flamboyant radio and television personality, is going to run for London mayor.

Livingstone said he isn’t worried about Brand and that "all of the colorful characters peel away" from the race when it’s time to pay a required deposit.

"I’ll believe it when he comes up with his £10,000," Livingstone said.

London’s driving charge

2003 Year congestion charge was introduced

$16 Fee to enter the charging zone per day

20 Percentage reduction of traffic since charge implemented

70,000 Fewer vehicles entering the charging zone each day in 2006, compared with the number entering before congestion charging began

8 square miles Size of the congestion charge zone

1.3 Total percentage of Greater London that zone inhabits

More than 1 million People who enter central London by all forms of transportion each morning during commute hours

85 Pecentage of people who arrive to central London each morning by public transportation

Source: Transport for London

beslinger@examiner.com

Voice your opinion and vote in our poll at examiNation SF: What do you think of paying tolls to drive on congested city streets?

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Bonnie Eslinger

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