Wednesday, December 14, 2005

London Realizes Improvements

Some of the initiatives that London has implemented to improve the lives of its residents and visitors should be recognized and lauded, especially their efforts to reduce congestion and improve air quality. A fee system called Congestion Charging has significantly reduced traffic congestion in Central London since being put in place two years ago and the retirement of the iconic red Routemaster double-decker buses aims towards reducing noxious emissions.

London will look dramatically different without the Routemaster and I, of course, lament the passing of these well-known symbols, but I won’t miss the unpleasant respiratory distress that frequently gripped me in there – runny nose, shortness of breath and sooty deposits in Kleenex. Those charming Routemasters, many dating from the early 1960s, were perhaps the worst polluters in London. You’d smile to see one approach until you were engulfed in a noxious cloud of haze as it passed.

In the end air quality wasn’t the only reason they are being retired. Another important factor is that their design isn’t very accessible for disabled passengers. New buses are lower to the ground, have wider aisles and accommodate wheelchairs far better. Transport for London is phasing out all Routemaster buses by the end of 2005 except on two so-called Heritage Routes that are convenient for tourists. The Heritage buses will be equipped with costly particulate air filters to significantly reduce emissions.

I recommend that all visitors seek out these rolling landmarks. If you want to experience the Routemaster buses on the Heritage Routes, one operates between Trafalgar Square and Tower Hill, and the other between the Royal Albert Hall and Aldwych.

While the improvements brought by the retirement of the Routemaster buses are yet to be fully realized, another dramatic initiative has already transformed London.

Congestion Charging for vehicles driving in Central London during the business week was championed by London Mayor Ken Livingstone. Citing studies showing London had the worst vehicle congestion in Europe and that drivers in Central London spent half their time stuck in traffic, local government pushed through the technology-based scheme.

Thousand of cameras in Central London record the license plate numbers of every car that drives in the designated Congestion Charging zone each day. Drivers must pay a £8 daily fee by 10:00 p.m. for the privilege of driving in the zone. Drivers may pay online, by phone, by mail, text message or at gas stations and parking garages; if they wait ’til after 10:00, a £2 penalty is added. After midnight the penalty is increased to £100, which they will kindly reduce by half if you pay within two weeks. If you delay another two weeks, they add £50.

As you may imagine, this makes people think long and hard about driving in Central London. With the excellent public transport network that includes buses, underground rail, light rail, boats and taxis, there are plenty of alternatives to driving. Because of this, traffic has been greatly reduced and public support for the program is so strong that London is considering expanding the zone to include Kensington and Knightsbridge.

I’ve seen that these changes are making London even more enjoyable for my clients. One particular benefit that I’m advising them to take advantage is to indulge in one of my favorite London experiences: the best taxis and taxi drivers in the world. The improved traffic flow makes them much more affordable because you’re much less likely to be paying for being stuck in traffic.

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