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E-GOV SUPPLEMENT - FLAWLESS PERFORMER

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Such was the anti-congestion charge hype prior to its launch, any failure would have been pounced on, but, so far, ...
Such was the anti-congestion charge hype prior to its launch, any failure would have been pounced on, but, so far, the system seems to be holding up, says Jon Hanlon

Opinion was divided on whether congestion charging in London would be a success. Mayor Ken Livingstone said it would - and nearly everyone else said it would not.

The magnitude of the project meant there would always be one or two hiccups, but these could be dealt with easily if the rest of the system ran okay.

The technology had to perform flawlessly if the mayor's most significant act to date was to succeed.

The clamour of dissenting voices became louder as the first day of the charge grew nearer and a number of individuals and organisations lined up to take pot shots.

Staff at Transport for London refused to be drawn into the arguments bubbling away on the pros and cons of congestion charging and there was an air of quiet confidence in Mr Livingstone's offices.

But even TfL's staff could not have envisaged the smooth running of the scheme in its first few weeks.

The streets were quieter than usual in the first few days and the critics' barracking became more subdued. All that could be heard was the tentative chirruping of bemused sparrows and the murmuring of Mr Livingstone's opponents, who said the reduction in traffic could be due to the school holidays.

But several weeks on, traffic is still light and graphs showing traffic flow before and after congestion charging indicate a sustained reduction.

A spokesman for Capita, the company running the system, appointed with the sole responsibility of dealing with press enquiries about the scheme's technology, must have found his job far easier than expected.

He seems almost bored with repeating the same comments, as the largest congestion charging scheme in the world trundled on unencumbered: 'Well, it's business as usual really. The video cameras are still sending back images and these are being matched with number plates, then manual checking is carried out. The automatic number plate recognition is converted into a text file and this is matched to the photo images.

'The database of vehicles which have entered the zone is cross-matched with the payment database and all the valid payment files are deleted. We are then left with a list of vehicles at the end of the day.'

There have, however, been a few teething problems and a small number of penalty notices have been sent to the wrong people.

TfL's managing director of street management Derek Turner admits a few errors are inevitable, but adds: 'The system continues to work very well with more and more people finding that paying by text message is both quick and convenient. To get the best and quickest possible service, those paying the charge should make sure they have their vehicle's license number correctly noted when they pay and they keep the receipt.'

This indicates that the only problems being encountered by the system seem to be caused by inexperienced users. One example of this became evident when people tried to pay their congestion charge by text message on their mobile phones.

When they were instructed to enter the last four digits of their credit card, hundreds of people keyed in 'last four digits', throwing the system into disarray.

Nevertheless, as people become accustomed to the technology the scheme is likely to bring in a significant amount of cash. Its performance so far suggests it should raise around £200m a year - equivalent to around 8% of the total raised in taxes in the capital.

This could be good news for London's commuters, and as other areas develop congestion charging schemes of their own it will almost certainly be good news for the firms supplying the technology.

Announcing a 30% increase in turnover for 2002, Capita's executive chairman Rod Aldridge claims congestion charging will mean the future fortunes of the local government outsourcing giant are strengthened.

He adds: 'More than 35 cities in the UK have expressed interest in the charging scheme a nd will be watching London as a way of reducing congestion and improving the quality of life in our city centres. The fact Capita has built a scalable, modular solution will give us a very significant 'first mover' advantage.

'We consider transport as a potential market for further significant growth. We expect our revenues from the transport sector - spanning road, rail and air - to double this year.'

Very few councils will publicly admit to be considering congestion charging but the financial and environmental incentives will make the idea irresistible to some.

Congestion charging schemes seem tailor-made for technology companies because they are simply about monitoring traffic flow and feeding this information into a system which produces a coherent set of results - easy to say with hindsight. Despite the scheme's success in London there is still some dissatisfaction.

Roughly 30% of those who have registered personal vehicles and 35% who have registered fleet vehicles say they have had a negative experience.

Julia Lalla-Maharajh is transport director for London First, an organisation representing 300 companies in the capital. She says: 'This mixed reaction to the registration process is to be expected with any new scheme of this scale. The technology is constantly being reviewed and improved.'

Given the widespread predictions of doom prior to the introduction of congestion charging, the technology has been a success.

As councils finalise their plans for delivering e-government in time for 2005 it is worth considering that Mr Livingstone's gamble has paid off, and when looking at new technology the play-it-safe mantra of 'incremental change' may be the biggest gamble of all.

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