C is for Chaos

Congestion charging will be introduced in London in February. But the inadequate technology behind the scheme will create chaos and force it to be abandoned, writes Helen Knight.

The bottleneck will start on day one. The congestion-charging scheme designed to solve London’s traffic chaos is too low-tech to solve a highly complicated problem and will create a whole new chaos of its own.

Experts believe the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, has settled for inadequate technology whose glitches will take months to sort out, while extra staff will be needed to deal with anomalies, and whose flaws could lead to a flood of complaints. Though around 10 per cent of cars will miss detection by cameras, improving the system appears to have been ruled out for 10 years.

It is predicted that the charging scheme that is costing £100m to put in place and around £40m to operate annually will instantly be paralysed when it goes live on February 17. A lack of awareness that charging has started among drivers, deliberate non-payment, unregistered vehicles and computer errors in registration plate recognition will overwhelm enforcement staff, who will manually have to double-check non-payers identified by computer before approving fines and deal with irregular outputs such as plate-identification errors. Dozens of staff will be needed to process thousands of anomalies daily.

Transport for London, the mayor’s transport department, is being accused of rushing to introduce an untried, inadequate system rather than holding back until more reliable and more automated technology is available. The result could substantially set back the introduction of congestion charging in other cities which will be watching the London experience closely.

Dr. Washington Ochieng, senior lecturer in geomatics and telematics at Imperial College’s Centre for Transport Studies, says: ‘Just handling the data they are going to have will be a nightmare. My feeling is that they will need the first two or three months just to get to grips with the situation and iron out some of the problems.’

Around 250,000 vehicles are expected to visit the 8sq mile charging zone in central London daily, representing 1.3 per cent of Greater London. The idea is that the driver of each vehicle, unless exempt, should have bought a £5 permit before entering the cordon. Its registration number is entered on a database at the point of buying the permit.

Each vehicle entering the zone will be digitally photographed. Its number plate will be compared with the database of vehicles that have paid. The name and address of anyone who has not paid by midnight on a given day will be obtained from the DVLA, and they will be fined. But doubts concern the reliability and coverage of the recognition system and the volume of manual checks that will be needed.

Eight hundred cameras at over 200 sites in and around central London will be supplemented by 10 mobile units randomly checking parked cars and potentially helping to locate persistent offenders. Registration plate data will be captured on CCTV, while colour photos will allow make and model to be identified.

The CCTV picture will be sent to a computer that uses Automatic Number Plate Recognition System to ‘read’ it. The number will be compared with the database of vehicle owners who have paid and exempt vehicles. Once read and logged as a charge evader the owner’s registration number will be stored till midnight, when all the identified plates will again be compared with the database in case a driver has since paid.

The numbers of non-payers will be sent to the DVLA’s computers. There the servers will respond automatically with the registered names and addresses corresponding to the numbers, and with the vehicle’s make and model.

Manual checks will come in at two points. First, if a registration plate cannot be read by the computer it will be flagged up for manual inspection. Second, the list of identified non-payers from DVLA will be double-checked to ensure that the DVLA make and model details agree with the colour picture taken. Only then will the scheme’s Coventry-based customer service office be notified electronically to send out a penalty notice.

But TfL admits, and experts agree, that 10-15 per cent will have their registration numbers read incorrectly. Poor light, bad weather, numbers obscured by mud and unfamiliar fonts or foreign plates could all significantly reduce the system’s ability to read the numbers.

Disturbingly, no one admits to any estimate of how many people will seek to evade the charge. Among them will be unregistered vehicles for which the DVLA will have no record of the owner. There will also be an unknown number of drivers who have either missed TfL’s advertising of the scheme, or who drive into London from further afield, don’t register the warning signs and fail to realise they have to pay. TfL claims 95 per cent of Londoners are already aware of the charge.

But even before non-payers are considered, the scheme’s enforcement staff will still face having to check up at least 25,000 vehicles being thrown up by the system daily.Meanwhile, vision system experts say around 10 per cent of vehicles passing through the cordon will be completely missed by the cameras, due, ironically, to congestion — causing number plates to be obscured by other cars.

TfL has contracted the scheme out to support service firm Capita Group. Capita refuses to give exact numbers of people who will do the manual checking.

The company’s spokesman would only admit to ‘tens of people’ being involved. Even if Capita have 100 staff manually checking, each employee would have to process up to 250 vehicle owners’ details a day. The potential for generating a backlog is enormous.

On top of all this, inadequate preparation means the congestion charging system is likely to be hit by a number of technical problems, says Imperial College’s Ochieng.

TfL has not run any pilot schemes to test the full system in operation, allowing it to analyse the data produced and uncover any technical glitches before it is launched. As a result, the first few months will effectively be its trial period, says Ochieng. ‘The mayor is on record as saying a lot is riding on this, but that all the studies he has seen suggest it will work. I have not seen any, particularly with respect to testing.’

Many consider that an 85 per cent success rate in recognising registration plates, a figure TfL has quoted for the system’s reliability, is too low. ‘You have a system that is in itself not very good, and then you add the logistical nightmare from the checks. My feeling is that a longer timescale would have allowed them more time to study it in operation, and produce a figure that people can rely on, so if you say it is 85 or 90 per cent reliable, then that’s really what it is, and no less.’

If technical and reliability problems are compounded by confusion among the public about how the system operates, the already stretched administrators could be swamped with complaints. ‘The bottleneck starts on day one. What I keep asking myself is whether there is a case for complaint by someone who is picked up by the cameras but whose friend who followed the same route was not. I suspect that because of the problems they might have at the beginning there could be quite a few complaints about it,’ says Ochieng.

TfL’s justification for its rush is that the congestion problem is so acute that something must be done immediately. After six months of operation TfL is expecting to see traffic patterns change.

Livingstone has claimed that congestion charging will increase traffic speeds by 16 per cent, and the scheme is supposed to reduce traffic by 10-15 per cent and delays by 20-30 per cent.

TfL has stated that though the system could be upgraded, any upgrade would need to be to a nationally approved standard. The Commission for Integrated Transport, a group of experts set up to give the government independent advice on transport, favours a system based on global positioning satellites and smart cards as the national standard for the UK’s 28 million vehicles. But the technology for this is not expected to be ready for a decade. What this means is that the existing flawed system has no prospect of being upgraded to improve its performance for at least 10 years.

This appears to rule out an improved technology, currently being developed, that would eliminate manual checks of vehicle make and model. Computers with the ability to distinguish make and model from the photos and check this against DVLA records will be operational within five years, according to experts. While today’s visual recognition can cope with colours and the crude differences between cars and lorries, exact model classification is very difficult.

TfL says that it is confident its system will work and that administrators will be capable of handling the manual checks. According to a spokesman, it has been checking the system since September, and the IT network has dealt successfully with large volumes of simulation data.

The fact remains, however, that, while most people would accept that London’s congestion problem is severe, the capital’s creaking public transport service does not offer people a viable alternative, even taking into account Ken Livingstone’s pledge of 430 new buses. Ochieng believes the mayor should have waited two years to introduce the system, allowing time to improve public transport and sufficiently test the technology, while still leaving around seven years of full operation before satellite tracking technology will be ready to take over.

‘The question is whether you plan this properly, live with the problem for a period while at the same time improving public transport, and come up with a system that actually addresses the problem in a better way, or you implement a system quickly, which might go some way to solving the problem, but creates a massive jolt at the beginning.’

Sidebar: How charging will work

From 17 February next year, the London congestion charging zone will operate from Monday to Friday between 7am and 6.30pm. It will be possible to pay the £5 fee on-line, by phone, at special machines and at post offices, retail outlets and petrol stations.

On payment, the vehicle’s registration number will be entered on a central database. Payment has to be made before 10pm on the day of the trip; between 10pm and midnight the fee doubles. It will be possible to pay weekly, monthly and annually. Two-wheeled vehicles, taxis, minicabs, buses, emergency and military vehicles, patients visiting hospitals regularly due to chronic illness and cars for the disabled are exempt. Residents of the zone get a 90 per cent discount. Alternative fuel cars, recovery and breakdown vehicles and minibuses pay £10 a year.

Charge evaders will be sent a penalty notice for £80, reduced to £40 if paid within 14 days. If drivers have three or more outstanding notices their vehicle can be towed away.

TfL says charging and penalties will generate between £130m and £150m in revenue for public transport improvements.

Sidebar: Satellite tracking – the benefits

Satellite-positioning technology will ultimately provide a more flexible congestion-charging system, which will also offer benefits such as cheaper car insurance, though the most advanced systems in use so far use a gantry set-up to communicate with cars automatically as in Singapore.

Once EU legislation is introduced to ensure all cars are fitted with units linked to satellites, whether GPS or Europe’s Galileo system, it will enable vehicles to be tracked continuously, unlike London’s proposed system.

While continuous tracking will inevitably lead to fears of a ‘Big Brother’ situation, it would allow drivers to be charged more fairly, says Dr. Washington Ochieng. ‘The ideal system would be based on the amount of road space you use, and the time you spend in congested areas.’

The system could also be combined with monitoring equipment, allowing good drivers or those who produce less pollution to be offered cheaper insurance. The technology could also help reduce bad driving by raising insurance premiums for the worst offenders.

Getting manufacturers to install in-car transponder and smart card readers in all new vehicles should be straightforward. But there would have to be a transition period when existing cars would be required to be fitted with a box to get an MOT, says Ian Catling of transport system specialist ICC. A network of cameras able to communicate with the in-car units would help enforce the system, he says.Though the Commission for Integrated Transport favours such a scheme, the government so far only has plans to track the estimated 480,000 foreign and domestic lorries using the UK’s roads.

Expected to begin operation in 2005 or 2006, it will follow a Customs and Excise study into road charging and a pilot congestion scheme that begins in Leeds in the next few weeks. This will look at using satellites and roadside sensors similar to the Singapore system, and will complete its work in 2004.