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Axe Bypass, Says Ex-London Mayor: ‘However Many Roads You build – They Will Fill Up, Usually Within 18 Months’

Albert Wong – SCMP | Updated on Nov 04, 2008

Construction of the Central-Wan Chai bypass would be a “complete waste of time” and only serve to increase the number of drivers in the area, according to the former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone.

“Literally, it will fill up in two years; it might fill up in two months,” Mr Livingstone, noted for his controversial introduction of a congestion charge to cut traffic levels in central London, said in an interview with the South China Morning Post.

Mr Livingstone, who visited Hong Kong last week at the government’s invitation to exchange views on urban environmental policies, said he had expressed his views on the matter to officials.

“In any city as densely populated as London, New York or Hong Kong, there’s a potential to double the road system and it will fill up,” he said.

“Transport planners have known since 1938 that however many roads you build – they will fill up, usually within 18 months or two years … If you take the [vehicle] capacity out, the number of people driving goes down; if you put it up, the number of people driving goes up.

“When you look at a city like Hong Kong, especially when you’ve 100 per cent of the roads you need, it’s about using them more sensibly.”

As the first mayor of London, a post created in 2000, Mr Livingstone credits his congestion charge for his re-election in 2004 – although he admits some people will never forgive him for it.

Since it was introduced in 2003, every annual report by Transport for London (TFL) on the successful reduction in congestion has been contested by alternative reports by various automobile associations that claim the figures are “spin”.

Businesses in central London also complained of the increased delivery costs and blamed reduced sales on less traffic in the area.

The controversy was fuelled when TFL reported in August that while the volume of cars entering central London was down 21 per cent since the charge started in 2003, congestion – measured by journey times – was back to 2002 levels. TFL maintained this was due to roadworks.

In Hong Kong, the government is planning to relieve traffic congestion by building the Central-Wan Chai bypass, scheduled for 2016, which will connect the Rumsey Street flyover in Central with the Island Eastern Corridor in North Point.

“Electronic road pricing”, similar to a congestion charge, is also being studied, although the government has said it could only complement the bypass, not replace it, and would depend on “community support”.

Mr Livingstone recognised that his scheme had its detractors, but said he felt they were outnumbered by its supporters. “Some people hated me and will never forgive me. But once the zone came in, my opinion polls jumped 10 per cent. And it guaranteed my election in 2004.”

A number of cities in Europe have now implemented congestion charging and New York has also been flirting with the idea.

Mr Livingstone urged the Hong Kong government to show some political will. “The one thing that strikes me here about the nature of this embryonic democracy is that everybody is so desperate to get a consensus and that everyone must be consulted,” he said. “There are always people resistant to change … The world doesn’t have the time to wait for everyone to agree.”

However, Mr Livingstone said neither the pollution nor congestion in Hong Kong was as bad as in many developed cities. He also said Hong Kong and Shanghai had the best potential to join London and New York in the “first tier” of great cities. “In both Hong Kong and Shanghai, you feel people are much more relaxed about difference and diversity,” he said.

Mr Livingstone recently lost the mayoral election to Tory Boris Johnson but plans to run for election against in 2012, in time for the Olympics Games. The former mayor advises various governments on sustainable development issues in cities and has been appointed an adviser in urban planning to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

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