The mayor of London told dozens of world mayors that they could unclog city streets and fight global warming by charging hefty fees for driving in congested areas of their communities.
Mayor Ken Livingstone said making drivers pay a "congestion charge" to drive in central London has improved traffic flow and reduced the emission of "greenhouse gases" blamed for raising temperatures and changing weather patterns. The $9 fee has forced people out of their cars and filled city buses, subways and sidewalks, he told mayors assembled here Friday for the U.N. World Environment Day Conference.
"We are the only city in the Western world where there's a notable shift from car use to public transport," he said at San Francisco's Cable Car Museum. "This is the only thing I've done in my political life that turned out better than I hoped."
In the United States, environmentalists have sought similar congestion taxes to clear up downtown traffic in cities such as New York and San Francisco, but the idea has not gained much traction.
In San Francisco, drivers must pay $3 to cross the Bay Bridge and $5 to cross the Golden Gate Bridge into the city, but commuters who live in the populous suburbs south of San Francisco can drive downtown for free.
Even in the politically liberal Bay Area, the idea of a congestion tax has run into opposition from business interests that say it would discourage companies from locating downtown because employees would balk at paying more to commute.
"It would be a pricing mechanism that drives businesses out of downtown areas," said John Grubb, spokesman for the Bay Area Council, a business advocacy organization. "And it would be a disincentive for businesses already downtown."
Livingstone, who was elected London mayor in 2000 and reelected last year, introduced the fee in February 2003 to relieve his city's traffic-choked streets. Revenue is reinvested in public transportation.
Despite protests, Livingstone imposed the fee on drivers entering an eight-square-mile area of central London that includes its financial and entertainment districts between 7 a.m. and 6:30 p.m.
Drivers who enter central London must buy daily, weekly or yearly passes and register their license plate numbers. A network of 800 cameras photographs license plates within the zone, and motorists who have not paid are fined.
A recent government study found that congestion inside the zone has fallen 30 percent.