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How IT Fixed London's Traffic Woes

How IT Fixed London's Traffic Woes

In a nation known for spectacular IT failures, a new traffic reduction scheme has gained global attention for its smashing success. The secret? Strong project management applied to well-designed systems.

Reader ROI

  • Why the London traffic scheme worked when other UK government projects failed
  • What city officials did to manage the project
  • How a first-of-its-kind traffic relief project uses IT

In 1903, 10 years before Henry Ford began mass-producing automobiles, traffic travelled through central London at a sedate 20kph, with horses providing most of the motive power. One hundred years of progress later, the average speed had slowed - yes, that's right, slowed - to just 14kph. As in other major cities, traffic congestion has negated a century of determined innovation of the internal combustion engine. Figures showed that London's drivers spent around half their time in queues, incurring 2.3 minutes of delay for every kilometre they travelled.

But on February 17, 2003, London began to fight back. The British capital launched an anticongestion scheme, based on tolls, that is attracting attention from all over the world. Unlike US- and Australian-style tolls, though, there's no sitting in queues waiting to pay. Or transponders.

Instead, 688 cameras at 203 sites scattered across the 2000 hectare anticongestion area photograph the licence plates of the 250,000 cars that traverse it each day. Enter the anticongestion area marked by a red C logo painted on signs and streets. Get photographed. And get ready for a one-off charge payable for that day, irrespective of how long the vehicle is in the zone, or how many times it is photographed. At a data centre in central London, Automatic Number Plate Recognition technology is then applied to convert the photograph images to licence numbers. Motorists who don't pay the toll that day are fined about £80, automatically (see "London Traffic Scheme: How It Works", page 126).

Now, London's traffic scheme is high profile. The mayors of New York City, Paris and Tokyo are all said to be watching with interest. The reason? Fines and tolls combine to give the project a payback period of about a year and a half, and should in total generate an eye-popping £1.35 billion in 10 years - all of which is earmarked for spending to improve London's public transportation systems. Best of all, according to a report cited in The Independent newspaper in March, traffic in the city's centre had fallen by 20 per cent, improving journey times by 5 per cent. Transport for London, the UK capital's transit authority, won't report on the scheme's effects until later this month; but officials say they expect delays caused by congestion to fall by 20 per cent to 30 per cent, saving drivers 2 million to 3 million hours of frustration every year. And on present form, the authority seems set for a pleasant surprise: It had been expecting traffic to fall by only 10 per cent or 15 per cent.

In the British public sector, IT projects often fall flat on their faces. And, as these words are written, Britain's tax authorities are defending yet another botched computer-laden initiative - a new tax credit system developed for Britain's Inland Revenue department that has seen millions of working parents receive late payments, causing in some cases severe hardship.

And the omens for London's congestion charging scheme weren't auspicious: a tight implementation timetable, no pre-existing model anywhere in the world to follow, the challenge of integrating new technologies - plus a brand-new transit authority working under a brand-new mayor. The inevitable question: In an area littered with IT disasters, why should this one work? The answer: an intriguing blend of clever procurement, vigorous project management, careful design - coupled with savvy and determined political leadership.

If The West Wing ever has a traffic congestion charging plotline, expect it to look a little like what you're about to read . . .

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