The traffic chaos in London is getting worse by the month. The rush hour used to be an hour, but today it stretches for most of the day. The choked roads mean misery for commuters battling to get to work. Pollution from exhaust fumes plays a major role in the rising levels of asthma in children. Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for children aged one to 14 years old.
Many people are desperate for a solution. This is the feeling that London mayor Ken Livingstone is using to introduce 'congestion charges'. These mean most people driving into central London on a weekday from February next year will have to pay a £5 daily levy or face a fine running up to £120. The scheme will cost £600 million to set up.
Those in favour of congestion charges range from people rightly concerned about pollution's impact on the environment through to the bosses' CBI organisation. The opposition to the charges is mainly driven by people who advocate car use whatever the impact on anyone else. But Livingstone's plan does have fundamental flaws. He admits the charges will only force a limited number of people-15 percent at the most-to stop using their cars.
These are most likely to be the poorest in society. Big business is the biggest polluter. The plans do not confront the key question of business executives and managers having free parking at their workplaces in central London. The wealthy driver will find the charges a minor inconvenience. But for most people it means massive extra costs.
A worker having to use their car to get from home in south London to work in inner north London would have to travel through the charge zone. The annual estimate for the charges is around £1,200 a year.
A worker on the minimum wage driving into central London would pay on average £25 a week out of a pay packet of £140 a week. The congestion charges will end up creating new traffic jams and increased pollution in communities around the edges of the charging zone. Traffic is likely to pile up across Vauxhall Bridge so drivers can cross the Thames without paying.
What alternative travel can people who give up their cars use? London's tube is already crammed full with passengers, and tube lines are constantly halted because of signal problems. Livingstone says his improvements on London Underground will be held up for at least seven years because the government is insisting on privatising the tube. Under the contract private firms can deliver a 5 percent worse service on the underground.
So Livingstone is aiming to lure car users onto the buses. There are now more buses in London than at any time since 1965. Yet for many people it is not a practical way to get to work. The bus lanes provide little relief from the clogged roads, as buses have to weave in and out of the main flow of traffic. Bus users regularly face long waits between buses or the arrival of several buses at once, depending on how congested the roads are.
One in five rush hour car journeys are parents taking their children to school. For many parents switching to the bus or tube would not allow them to drop off their children and get to work on time. There is a solution to the traffic chaos in London and other major cities, but it means tackling the cause of the problem. It would mean challenging the pro-privatisation and big business policies of the New Labour government. Renationalising the train and bus industries and stopping the privatisation of the tube is the first step.
Free 24-hour public transport use for everybody would go a long way to reducing the use of the car. Rationing car use would have a positive impact on everyone's lives, but it should be done on the basis of need, not ability to pay. Re-establishing comprehensive education and smaller local schools would cut down on car journeys.
Creating local decently paid jobs with good quality housing, stopping the growing centralisation of hospitals and restoring hospitals in local areas would also reduce the need for people to travel. All of this would improve the quality of people's lives dramatically and improve London's transport system.
The Socialist Alliance plans to campaign around these policies, and others, in the May local elections in London and around the country.