Drivers should pay up and stop complaining

Car users have been left alone so long that they have come to see themselves as inviolable

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Doom, roll the drums of the media. Doom, doom, doom. As the date for kicking off the congestion charge in London draws nearer, the voices predicting chaos and failure, misery and gridlock, are moving towards a crescendo.

Doom, roll the drums of the media. Doom, doom, doom. As the date for kicking off the congestion charge in London draws nearer, the voices predicting chaos and failure, misery and gridlock, are moving towards a crescendo.

Car-users have been left alone for so long, allowed to destroy the air of our cities with their toxic fumes and the look of our neighbourhoods with their lumps of steel, that they have come to believe themselves inviolable. Some seem to see themselves as the sole proprietors of certain rights. A legal challenge is currently being planned against the congestion charge, and Stephen Alexander, the lawyer who is masterminding the challenge, told me yesterday that "we all have a common-law right to move freely about the country," and that "we all have a human right to be consulted if that common-law right is taken away."

Those of us who have already seen the right to free movement taken away as, say, we sit in a bus surrounded by a gridlock of cars each holding one single motorist, may feel rather sceptical about such a right. It is beginning to look like a right that will be held on to, grimly, until the whole country grinds to a halt. Other opponents of the charge may use less legalistic language, but they too seem to believe that they have rights that must not be taken away. Catherine Crawley, who has set up an amusing website called "www.sod-u-ken.co.uk", told one interviewer, "I don't think I should have to pay to go into central London. I am a Londoner."

She, like many other opponents of the congestion charge, seems to have forgotten that most of us already pay to go into central London. Those of us who live on the outskirts of the city pay very nearly the equivalent of the congestion charge every day if we travel in by Underground. Can you imagine how deluded we would seem if we campaigned for free use of the Tube?

It's funny how campaigners against the congestion charge are so in love with their cars that they tend to talk about public transport with something approaching horror. Yet most people I know who have lived in London all their lives hardly ever use their own car to get about in the city. Some of them are dedicated greens, some of them are terrible drivers and some of them just prefer jumping in and out of buses and taxis to being stuck in a jam or in a queue for a parking space.

I've lived in north London and south London and west London, but I've never lived anywhere in London where I found it easier to get about by car than by Tube. Growing up in the grey suburbs of north London, the Metropolitan line trains that thrummed down one side of our road spelt the possibility of freedom; the easy way out of the suburbs and into the real city.

Even now that I have a young child myself, public transport still looks friendly to me; I have never understood those parents who shudder at tubes or buses. Of course they can be tricky to negotiate with a child, but you just don't notice how heartwarmingly nice so many people in the city are until you see how they smile at your child and help you up the stairs at the station. The idea of sitting in solitude in a jam with a baby whingeing in the back, driving round and round the city searching for an expensive parking space; now that seems like hell to me.

Perhaps the problem is that overusing one's car is like an addiction; the more people drive, the harder it is for them to imagine any alternative, even when the alternatives are there. Of course, if addicted motorists thought things through, they would see that their behaviour is unsustainable – we cannot have jams growing for ever, more and more neighbourhoods destroyed by the pressure of traffic – but they seem to shut their eyes to reality as they shut themselves into their air-conditioned pods. The growing fear for the rest of us is that their short-sightedness may destroy this brave attempt to return Britain's greatest city to its citizens.

Next Monday, a public meeting will be held in central London to whip up opposition to the congestion charge. These campaigners are being led by Samantha Bond, the actress, who says that she is moved to speak out against it because of all those ill-paid actresses and usherettes who need their cars to get home and can't possibly afford the congestion charge. Yet the idea that the congestion charge will hit the poor hardest is not entirely rational. The very poorest people in London do not have cars; they experience all the problems of living in a car-reliant society without enjoying its advantages.

Now, I'm not saying that the congestion charge is perfect. It is not. It is unfortunate that it hits the low-paid nurse exactly as hard as the well-paid banker. It is unfortunate that it is being introduced while improvements to the Tube have been stalled for so long, so that even more people will be piling on to a shaky system that may not be able to cope.

On the other hand, the way through such problems is, surely, not to try to retain the status quo, but to think our way through to the future. The great thing would be if, rather than encouraging us to think about how to go backwards to our old ways, the congestion charge encouraged people to think up other ways to get about without sitting in solitary splendour in their car.

There are all sorts of commonsense ideas floating about, which other cities have often used to good effect, such as car pools, taxi-shares, workplace minibuses, or escorted walks to school for children. For instance, rather than just complaining about the situation that night-workers will now face, the campaigners against the charge could try to put pressure on Ken to keep the Tube running through the small hours.

Although this immediate campaign against the introduction of the congestion charge is unlikely to succeed, there is a very real danger that once it has been introduced on 17 February, the bloodymindedness of car-users will quickly blow the new system to pieces. People are already talking about how mass non-payment will easily snarl up the system, how the technology will not be able to cope with large-scale recalcitrance. Indeed, as we saw with the poll tax, protests that rely on inertia are usually far more effective than those that rely on action.

But to those who are planning to scupper the system, all I can say is, please think again. This scheme deserves to work. Success for the congestion charge could be the start of a revolution. It could be seen as a beginning, not an end in itself. If the money taken from the motorist is ploughed into public transport, into better trams and buses and tubes, we could see the resuscitation of a city that is currently choking in its own fumes.

And this isn't just about London. If the scheme succeeds here, we could see it introduced elsewhere; Birmingham, Bristol and Edinburgh are among the cities contemplating their own congestion charge. More ambitiously, a study commissioned by the Government on controlling car use reported that the best way to reduce all car journeys would be to shift payment from flat taxes to payment according to miles travelled.

If the congestion charge worked in London, it would lay down a challenge to the absurd principle that we have a right to use our cars freely to destroy other people's quality of life. And that could be the start of something much, much bigger.

n.walter@btinternet.com

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