The London traffic toll scheme wouldn’t have happened without Mayor Ken Livingstone’s commitment to it. And Livingstone’s commitment wouldn’t have been possible without the decision by the incoming Labor administration in 1997 to emulate an American idea: directly elected mayors in a handful of British cities, among them London. (Past London leaders were chosen from the elected city council members.) To Prime Minister Tony Blair, this looked to be a novel way of tackling perennial problems—in London’s case, its poor transport infrastructure.
Blair had a nominee, but his plan derailed when a controversial Labor member of parliament named Ken Livingstone announced he would run as an independent. And run as someone who opposed the government’s notion that the London Underground should be privatized.
Livingstone, 58, a man for whom the words maverick and firebrand might have been invented, is a veteran London politician dubbed Red Ken for his brand of left-wing politics, such as his advocating for gay rights legislation and British concessions in Northern Ireland.
In May 2000, when the dust settled on the three-way race for London mayor, it was Livingstone by a landslide.
On July 3, 2000, Transport for London was born, tasked with managing London’s hitherto separately managed transport services: roads, buses, river boats and taxis. Within days, Livingstone was talking about congestion charging. One early confidante was Derek Turner, London’s traffic director at the time. “He wanted to know how long such a scheme would take to implement, and what the risks were,” recalls Turner. Weeks later, Turner found himself in an ideal position to find out, when Livingstone—the chairman of Transport for London—appointed him the agency’s managing director of street management.
Livingstone, referring to the need “to tackle the congestion which cripples this capital city,” said when the traffic charging plan began in February: “From today something is being done. If we want London to continue to be a success story for business and jobs, then we must enable people to move around the heart of London more efficiently. Congestion charging is the only option available—there is no practical alternative.”