ON Monday 17 February London mayor Ken Livingstone's congestion charge comes into force. Between 7am and 6.30pm on weekdays drivers will have to pay £5 a day to drive into central London.
The charge is causing huge controversy in the capital. No one really knows whether the scheme will work or collapse in chaos. On one thing Ken Livinsgstone is absolutely right. Car congestion in London is chronic and something must be done.
This is not just a problem in London. Right across the world, especially in the growing cities of the Third World, people are being choked and polluted by car traffic. People's health suffers-usually that of the poorest, forced to live next to traffic-choked roads. In London childhood asthma is at epidemic levels. Car exhausts make a major contribution to global warming.
Many attacking Livingstone's plan don't care about this. They are the modern day Mr Toads, people for whom the right to drive in their cars is god given, a symbol of individual 'freedom'. Papers like the Mail, Express and Sun sum up this Thatcherite philosophy. Such people were well represented at a recent meeting against the congestion charge in central London.
The platform was dominated by sleek lawyers and Tories. The biggest cheer came when a businessman talked of buses being full of people who 'smelled' and called for 'police to get on the streets and sweep the scum away'.
The 'great car economy' is central to modern capitalism, and was pushed enthusiastically by Tory governments in the 1980s and 1990s. Public transport was privatised, deregulated and starved of investment. New Labour promised to change this, but has given in to the road building and car lobbies.
The resulting chaos not only damages people and the environment, but makes travelling a misery and is even worrying businesses. While Livingstone's starting point is right, his solution is not one that socialists can support.
He is relying on market mechanisms that will benefit the rich while hitting ordinary people forced to use cars to go into central London. Livingstone says his scheme will cut traffic by 13 percent, though that also means leaving 87 percent untouched.
Who will be pushed off the road by the scheme, if it works? Livingstone argues that the poorest people don't use cars in London. He is right up to a point. In London 37 percent of households, mainly the poorest, have no car and rely entirely on public transport. Among the poorest tenth of people in London 88 percent have no car.
Most of those who drive into central London each day are by definition better off, with parking already at £4 an hour unless you have access to company car parks. The rich will not bat an eyelid at paying £5 if it clears a few of the proles out of their way.
But there are many workers on average wages or below who have little choice at present but to use their cars to get to work in the capital. These are the people who will be really hit by congestion charging. That is why unions representing some such workers-firefighters, health workers, teachers, theatre workers-are opposing the congestion charge or demanding employers meet the extra cost.
The effect of the scheme will be to free the roads up for the wealthy. That is why the charge is gaining some support from business and the rich. The real answer to London's traffic nightmare is not rationing by wealth. The technology used to run the scheme could be used to ration car use on the basis of need instead.
People who have a greater need to use cars-the disabled, some pensioners, parents of younger children, some workers doing essential jobs-could be given free permits.
Others would be restricted to a maximum number of journeys a year into central London, limited by the overall needs of keeping traffic levels at a liveable level.
That would be a fair way to tackle the immediate congestion. To really curb car chaos much more is needed. The key is to ensure people can travel safely, reliably and cheaply when and where they want and need to without having to rely on a car.
In London that would be relatively straightforward. There is no reason why with sufficient investment London could not have a free, efficient, 24-hour, and massively expanded, bus and tube system. A major expansion of proper cycling facilities, with purpose-built lanes, not the dangerous stripes of green paint we largely get now, would also help. Ending the insanity of league tables and competition between schools which fuels parents ferrying children across London would also help.
So too would a major programme of council house building in the capital, so that people had a genuine choice to live nearer work. Such measures are the way to curb car congestion. That would undercut the car lobby and papers like the Mail and Sun and prevent them posing as friends of working people and the poor.