London's mayor gives Bangkok advice on easing its traffic congestion
"Get cars off the streets" is the strongest piece of advice leaders of some of the world's greenest capitals can give to their counterparts from cities plagued by pollution and congestion.
In no uncertain terms, they argue it is the most effective way to improve the quality of life and reduce carbon emissions.
London Mayor Ken Livingstone's "congestion pricing" has become a model success story that drew attention, whether awe or scepticism, from many mayors and city managers attending the second day of the "Large Cities Climate Summit" yesterday in New York.
Addressing the panel discussing "Beating the Congestion and Surviving Your Next Election" at the four-day summit of some 40 of the world's largest cities, Livingstone acknowledged the fears of many elected mayors that their political future could be jeopardized by drastic measures to tax drivers for taking their cars to trade and business centres.
"When I introduced the measure four years ago, my poll rating was bad, the media were hostile and gave disastrous predictions; it was all doom and gloom, no one would drive, retail shops and businesses in the controlled area would have to shut down," he recalled.
"Tony Blair wanted to appear as if he had nothing do with it. The government gave us money to expand the bus system but hoped nobody knew about it."
But he then listed how the measure improved flows of traffic in the city: the number of cars in the centre of London has been reduced by 38 per cent, a rate Livingstone said was twice more than he anticipated. Commercial vehicles increased, the number of cyclists increased 80 per cent, while bus riders increased from four to six million a day.
As a result, carbon emissions from the transport sector reduced 25 per cent.
Livingstone noted that his political courage to introduce the measure came from being pressured by London's business community. Congestion in the city cost ฃ2 billion (Bt140 billion) in business losses a year. London had lost its competitiveness and businesses threatened to relocate elsewhere, he said.
The mayor of London said he expanded the controlled areas by doubling them early this year and increased charges from ฃ5 to ฃ8 with similar hostility from the media, but opinion polls stated that his political approval went up.
"Politicians like to underestimate the intelligence of the general public - trust your people that they recognise the problem. In four years my poll has gone up 14 per cent and they don't want to vote for my rival because they fear my rival would remove congestion pricing."
Bangkok Governor Apirak Kosayodhin told Livingstone he was interested in his success story but had little clue how a gridlocked city like Thailand's capital with 5.5 millions cars on the street every day could begin the measure without a good public transit system.
"We only have 50km combined of Skytrain and subway. The buses are run by the central government. We want to introduce the charge but don't have a proper mass transit system. Do we need to have the system in place first or could we start now in the inner city?"
Livingstone's advice is to improve the bus system because subways take a long time to construct. He said in the case of London, the number of buses increased from 6,000 to 8,000 along with the introduction of new routes, and the private sector played a key role in helping with finance.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised Livingstone's scheme. If he has his way, drivers who want to enter inner Manhattan will have to pay US$8 (Bt267).
The Mayor of Copenhagen, Klaus Bondam, said he had wanted to introduce congestion charging for some time but the right-wing central government opposed the idea by not issuing legislation. "Copenhagen is much smaller than Bangkok with only 500,000 residents, but noise and air pollution from the traffic bothers our residents, so we want to discourage cars from getting into the city. We will continue to fight for what is right," he said.
Could the Cambodia Daily afford to send a reporter overseas to see if there any talking heads with clear advice on how to decongest Phnom Penh? Or at at least avoid more congestion. On yer bike? Or should he/she take a moto?