Two thousand years ago, the streets of Rome had become fetid and knotted with traffic. Local rulers became so fed up that they declared: "The circulation of the people should not be hindered by numerous litters and noisy chariots." It was an early salvo in what would become an endless, thankless, unwinnable war. Around the same time, Julius Caesar introduced the first off-street parking laws. In A.D. 125, a limit was placed on the number of vehicles that could enter Rome. For as long as there have been roads, it seems, there have been crowds of swearing, sweaty drivers and schemes to get rid of them. But now traffic is so bad costing the European Union €40 billion a year that some cities are getting serious about fighting back.
This week, London careers into Europe's most radical traffic-control experiment of the past half-century. Every vehicle that enters the city center must render unto the modern Caesar Mayor Ken Livingstone and his Greater London Authority a €8 charge. Seven hundred cameras are recording all license plates, and those who don't pay are fined at least €60. You would think, judging by the public uproar, that drivers were being asked to hand over their bone marrow. A London law firm is seeking an injunction to stop the charge, calling it the "biggest single-tax increase in U.K. history." A rabbi whose synagogue is in the charge zone told the Observer: "This building was bombed in the war, but Livingstone is going to cause more damage than the Germans." And one particularly motivated protester plans to ride into the zone on a horse and cart, singing an abusive song about the mayor.
But it is a testament to how desperate traffic conditions have become that Livingstone is pushing ahead with the plan anyway. "It's not something we would do if we could avoid it," he said last week on the eve of the scheme's debut. As most Londoners are by now keenly aware, Livingstone does not drive. So he did not seem too distraught when he conceded that the first days of the congestion charge "will clearly be bloody."
If it works, London could pave the road to the future of cities everywhere. The rationalist's dream is one day to make drivers pay for exactly the amount they contribute to traffic jams: the more they drive, the bigger their car, the closer to rush hour, the higher the price. For half a century, economists and engineers have insisted that this strategy "congestion charging" is the best and fairest way to reduce traffic. But driving and rationality do not always share the same lane. For just as many years, politicians have instead tried cajoling drivers out of their cars providing better public transport, tax incentives, free bikes with little to show for it. Now, some European cities are trying tough love. They are finally, haltingly, aiming to make things unbearable for the rush-hour driver to shove him violently out of his car.
Think of it as a collective intervention, confronting drivers about their addiction in order to save them. Bertrand Delanoë, the mayor of Paris, has launched a campaign against traffic jams, known as bouchons (also the word for the cork of a wine bottle). His first major act has been to impose new bus and bike lanes on busy boulevards, squeezing out car space and increasing average bus speeds by 3 km/h. Traffic lights in London are being tweaked to favor pedestrians. And Zurich has imposed a zero-sum parking policy: no new garages can be built without first eliminating parking somewhere else in the city.
Over the years, several other countries (including the Netherlands and Sweden) have got tantalizingly close to congestion charging, only to abandon the idea when public antagonism became too terrifying. People will accept paying higher charges for daytime phone calls or primetime movies, but they recoil at paying for roads they thought of as free.
Of course, if Livingstone's plan fails, it will be another generation before congestion charging is tried again in Europe. So it's too bad that London is the test case. Its public transit system was creaking and fragile and stretched to the limit even before the 20,000 more daily riders expected this week. And Londoners themselves, from long experience, tend to be wryly pessimistic about bold attempts at social engineering. "The charge will simply shift congestion [elsewhere]," says Gary Jennings, a self-employed removal man. "Ken's a bit naive if he thinks this is going to sort out the congestion problems." Concludes Bernhard Oehry, a traffic consultant in Switzerland: "There's a reasonable chance it won't work."
Europe's leaders have embraced the policy goal of making life miserable for drivers partly because we were doing such a good job of it ourselves. Last August, French families leaving for vacation were trapped in jams clogging nearly 800 km of roadway. The Transport Ministry dubbed it the worst traffic day in French history. Then last month, thousands of Parisians returning from holiday spent the night in their cars after icy weather paralyzed traffic. French officials distributed chocolate and coffee, a small gesture of humanity in a sea of barbarity. One recent Friday night in central London, Corinne Truss spent 4 1/2 hours driving 5 km to one of her catering jobs. "I called the police, and they said people had been sent out to direct traffic," she remembers. "But they were stuck in traffic."