How Technology Fixed London's Traffic Woes

In 1903, 10 years before Henry Ford began mass-producing automobiles, traffic traveled through central London at a sedate 12 mph, with horses providing most of the motive power. One hundred years of progress later, the average speed had slowed?yes, that’s right, slowed?to just 9 mph. As in other major cities, traffic congestion has negated a century of determined innovation of the internal combustion engine. Figures showed that London’s drivers spent around half their time in queues, incurring 2.3 minutes of delay for every kilometer they traveled.

But on Feb. 17, 2003, London began to fight back. The British capital launched an anticongestion scheme, based on tolls, that is attracting attention from all over the world. Unlike American-style tolls, though, there’s no sitting in queues waiting to pay. Or transponders.

Instead, 688 cameras at 203 sites scattered across the 8-square-mile anticongestion area photograph the license plates of the 250,000 cars that traverse it each day. Enter the anticongestion area marked by a red C logo painted on signs and streets. Get photographed. And get ready for a one-off charge payable for that day, irrespective of how long the vehicle is in the zone, or how many times it is photographed. At a data center in central London, Automatic Number Plate Recognition technology is then applied to convert the photograph images to license numbers. Motorists who don’t pay the toll that day are fined about $130, automatically. (See "London Traffic Scheme: How It Works," Page 58).

Now, London’s traffic scheme is high profile. The mayors of New York City, Paris and Tokyo are all said to be watching with interest. The reason? Fines and tolls combine to give the project a payback period of about a year and a half, and should in total generate an eye-popping $2.2 billion in 10 years?all of which is earmarked for spending to improve London’s public transportation systems. Best of all, according to a report cited in The Independent newspaper in March, traffic in the city’s center had fallen by 20 percent, improving journey times by 5 percent. Transport for London, the U.K. capital’s transit authority, won’t report on the scheme’s effects until

August; but officials say they expect delays caused by congestion to fall by 20 percent to 30 percent, saving drivers 2 million to 3 million hours of frustration every year. And on present form, the authority seems set for a pleasant surprise: It had been expecting traffic to fall by only 10 percent or 15 percent.

In the British public sector, IT projects often fall flat on their faces. (See "Her Majesty’s Flying IT Circus," which catalogues failure on a scale nothing short of heroic, at And, as these words are written, Britain’s tax authorities are defending yet another botched computer-laden initiative?a new tax credit system developed for Britain’s Inland Revenued department that has seen millions of working parents receive late payments, causing in some cases severe hardship.

And the omens for London’s congestion charging scheme weren’t auspicious: a tight implementation timetable, no preexisting model anywhere in the world to follow, the challenge of integrating new technologies?plus a brand-new transit authority working under a brand-new mayor. The inevitable question: In an area littered with IT disasters, why should this one work? The answer: an intriguing blend of clever procurement, vigorous project management, careful design?coupled with savvy and determined political leadership. (See "Why It All Worked," Page 60.)

If The West Wing ever has a traffic congestion charging plotline, expect it to look a little like what you’re about to read....

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