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How IT Fixed London's Traffic Woes

How IT Fixed London's Traffic Woes

SIDEBAR: The Man Behind the Plan

London's first elected mayor made traffic congestion his main priority

The London traffic toll scheme wouldn't have happened without Mayor Ken Livingstone's commitment to it. And Livingstone's commitment wouldn't have been possible without the decision by the incoming Labour administration in 1997 to emulate an American idea: directly elected mayors in a handful of British cities, among them London. (Past London leaders were chosen from the elected city council members.) To Prime Minister Tony Blair, this looked to be a novel way of tackling perennial problems - in London's case, its poor transport infrastructure.

Blair had a nominee, but his plan derailed when a controversial Labour member of parliament named Ken Livingstone announced he would run as an independent. And run as someone who opposed the government's notion that the London Underground should be privatised. Livingstone, 58, a man for whom the words maverick and firebrand might have been invented, is a veteran London politician dubbed Red Ken for his brand of left-wing politics, such as his advocating gay rights legislation and British concessions in Northern Ireland.

In May 2000, when the dust settled on the three-way race for London mayor, it was Livingstone by a landslide.

On July 3, 2000, Transport for London was born, tasked with managing London's hitherto separately managed transport services: roads, buses, river boats and taxis. Within days, Livingstone was talking about congestion charging. One early confidante was Derek Turner, London's traffic director at the time. "He wanted to know how long such a scheme would take to implement, and what the risks were," recalls Turner. Weeks later, Turner found himself in an ideal position to find out, when Livingstone - the chairman of Transport for London - appointed him the agency's managing director of street management.

Livingstone, referring to the need "to tackle the congestion which cripples this capital city", said when the traffic charging plan began in February: "From today something is being done. If we want London to continue to be a success story for business and jobs, then we must enable people to move around the heart of London more efficiently. Congestion charging is the only option ­available - there is no practical alternative."

SIDEBAR: Why It All Worked

An expert identifies the reasons for the traffic project's success

Though he doesn't claim to have studied every facet of the London traffic congestion scheme, Richard Heeks, senior lecturer in IS at the University of Manchester, has seen a number of British public-sector IT projects gone wrong. Heeks, editor of Reinventing Government in the Information Age: International Practice in IT-Enabled Public Sector Reform, notes that the London traffic project's managers were guided by three principles: a narrowly focused goal, getting vendor partnerships right and testing.

"The partnership between Capita and Transport for London has clearly worked well, and worked in a way that hasn't in other big government IT projects," Heeks says.

Compared to some other government IT projects - modernising the Royal Mail or reinventing the UK Passport Service, to name two - the London traffic project "is a pretty simple and relatively focused project with very clear objectives. In contrast, many of those failing government projects have involved human elements, and they have had unclear objectives," he says.

Lastly, an emphasis on testing was crucial. "They really, really tried it out before the go-live date. They had thought about what could go wrong, tested it and sorted out any issues beforehand," says Heeks.

SIDEBAR: Vital Stats

Congestion zone is 2000 hectares (eight square miles) in central London

688 cameras at 203 locations to record licence plates

174 entrances and exit points to and from the zone

Drivers are charged when they enter the zone weekdays between 7am and 6.30pm

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