Lessons From London

As he struggles and strains to push through his congestion charge plan this week, New York's billionaire mayor must feel an incongruous affinity with one of Britain's last prominent leftists, Ken Livingstone.

Mr. Livingstone is Michael Bloomberg's opposite number in London. His socialism is of such a crimson hue that, back in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher abolished the elected body he headed, the Greater London Council, rather than deal with him. He won his first London mayoral election in 2000 as an independent, having been expelled from the center-left Labor Party of Tony Blair in the run-up to polling day.

When Mr. Livingstone announced that a congestion charge would be introduced in February 2003 to try to ease London's wheezing tailbacks, it was no surprise that more brickbats rained down upon his head.

Steven Norris, who was to become Mr. Livingstone's Tory opponent in his re-election battle the following year, derided the plan as "incompetent and incoherent". Peter Walker, a cabinet minister under Mrs. Thatcher, said that the congestion charge would bring "general misery".

The pun-loving British tabloids, which had customarily referred to Mr. Livingstone as "Red Ken" during the 1980s, now ran headlines that blared warnings of "Ken-gestion."

Even Mr. Livingstone admitted the scheme could imperil his political future, telling a BBC interviewer, "If this goes wrong, you will not be interviewing me next year."

He need not have worried. The London congestion charge is widely adjudged to be a roaring success, and its critics have long since been silenced.

The number of cars on London's roads has fallen by about 20 percent while the number of passengers on the city's buses has risen by about two million passengers per day, according to the official figures. The charge has also raised $240m to be put towards the British capital's transport infrastructure.

Mr. Livingstone romped home in the 2004 mayoral election. Reluctant encomiums have come his way from tabloid columnists – "I was wrong [to oppose the charge]. London is now as quiet as a Trappist monk's carpet slippers," wrote one – and even from the prime minister himself.

"I think it was an experiment that a lot of people were dubious about, frankly including me, and I think he deserves credit for having carried that through," Mr. Blair admitted.

There is no good reason to assume that what has worked in London would fail in New York. In fact, Manhattan has several practical advantages over London when it comes to setting up such a scheme. It is axiomatically easier for the authorities to monitor vehicles as they come and go to an island. And a population long accustomed to tolling and EZ Pass should find the introduction of a congestion charge less of a cultural shock than may have been the case in Britain.

Lessons From London