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Smooth start to London traffic tax

It is hoped the congestion charge will persuade motorists to leave their cars at home
It is hoped the congestion charge will persuade motorists to leave their cars at home

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CNN's Diana Muriel reports on the London congestion charge. (February 17)
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• Transport for London: Congestion charge Web site 

LONDON, England -- The world's most ambitious traffic-reducing scheme has got off to a relatively smooth start in London.

The congestion charge was introduced at 0700 GMT on Monday, with the eyes of the world looking on.

The scheme -- seen as a huge political gamble by London Mayor Ken Livingstone -- aims to reduce congestion in the British capital, where traffic moves at an average of less than 10 mph during the day.

Transport for London, which manages the scheme, hailed it a major success and said it was an historic day for the city.

Traffic for London congestion charge director Michele Dix told the Press Association there was no sign of "rat-running" on the zone's edge and that all of the scheme's payments channels -- the call centre, the Internet, shops and texting -- were operating well.

By 0800 GMT, 34,000 people had paid the 5 ($8.00) charge, she said.

Livingstone, who admits he may have committed political suicide if the scheme fails, was at the London Traffic Control Centre to see it come into operation.

"I am just waiting for things to go wrong," he said.

But he was in a jovial mood as he joked that there were as many journalists as protesters along the boundary of the congestion-charging zone, where snarl-ups were expected.

"My guess is there will be some problems today, especially if there are protesters, and over the next few days too, but we will bear down on the problems and by Easter we should make an assessment," Livingstone told reporters.

Paul Watters, the Automobile Association lobby group, told PA: "It's really, really quiet. A lot of people seem to have been frightened off from driving into central London.

"Although it's good to see that the fears of congestion have not been realised, lack of motoring activity means lack of economic activity. It is feared that the charge scheme could cost industry many billions of pounds.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone oversees the scheme's launch
London Mayor Ken Livingstone oversees the scheme's launch

"We feel that traffic will drift back to central London. Then we will see just how well the scheme is doing."

The scheme was introduced on Monday to coincide with a week-long mid-term school holiday, which usually reduces traffic by about 20 percent, Dix said.

In a huge urban surveillance scheme, 800 cameras at 400 points in and around an eight-square-mile (21 square kilometre) chunk of the city centre will monitor the licence plates of the motorists who drive into the area every day.

The charge is payable between 0700 and 1830 GMT from Monday to Friday.

If the congestion charge is not paid up by 2200 GMT it is doubled. If not paid by midnight on the day of the journey, there is a penalty charge of up to 80 ($130).

Payments can be made by credit or debit cards, by text message and at petrol stations, retail outlets and post offices.

Livingstone said he was more than 99 percent certain that the system would work, but the issue would be how drivers responded.

"If I thought there was even a 1 percent chance the system would fail, we wouldn't have gone ahead," he told the BBC on Sunday.

"The question has never been would the technology work, it is will people tolerate it?"

But he joked: "If this goes wrong, you won't be interviewing me next year."

Opinion polls show that 56 percent of Londoners support the scheme, while 42 percent oppose it, he said.

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