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High-tech battle over congestion

London's technology is ready

In an attempt to cut down the amount of traffic driving through the centre of London, Mayor Ken Livingstone's Congestion Charge will come into force on Monday 17 Feb.

A squadron of 668 cameras is being installed at over 200 sites across the central London Congestion Charge zone. There are 434 black-and-white cameras for capturing number plates, and 254 colour ones collecting wider pictures for use in evidence against anyone who doesn't pay their £5 charge in advance or by 10pm on the day they travel.

The data from the cameras, on an estimated 250,000 vehicles each weekday, will be passed via a fibre-optic link to Capita's data hub in the East End of London, where ANPR (automatic number plate reader) software will identify the number of each vehicle. A separate feed links to a back-up site in case data is lost. A fleet of mobile patrol units will also park at random points within the zone and use cameras on extendable masts to capture images. Those feeds are stored on CD and downloaded each evening.

Once collected, the data will be analysed and miscreants caught. Or that's the plan.

The public of London seems to have collectively lost its head over this. After complaining for years that the city is too congested, the local newspapers – and, if you believe what you read, most Londoners – are up in arms about Livingstone's infringement of their right to drive where and when they like.

If you believe what's in the papers, no one intends to pay.

Emails and rumours are already circulating about the best ways to circumvent the ANPR software, ranging from mud on the number plate to special number plate covers that will supposedly make them unreadable by the cameras. Anti-charge websites give people a place to vent their fury and share tips on how to avoid the charge or overload the system. But Capita said none of these strategies would work.

In a released statement on the technology it said that each camera is equipped with an infrared illuminator that picks up the number plate's reflection "outside the visible spectrum and makes the image especially clear". And the hub, Capita said, can handle up to five times the amount of data expected.

The information from the ANPR system is passed to one of 10 Compaq data server IES’s (intermediate evidence stores) and, towards the end of the day, compared to records of payment.

A customer service centre has been set up in Coventry, England, to handle payment, queries and, no doubt, complaints. People can pay by phone, by post, over the internet, in designated shops and even by text message from their mobile phones.

Livingstone hopes the charge will cut congestion by 10 percent to 15 percent and raise money to be spent on public transport. However, its success will depend on how well the system deals with all those who plan to rebel, and what options are open to people wanting to give up their cars. The London Underground, or Tube, is already overcrowded and hundreds of grumpy ex-drivers won't help. Even cyclists are wary; while the idea of fewer cars is lovely, those left on the roads will drive faster, and there will be increased numbers of exempted vehicles, like motorbikes, on the road.

Ken Livingstone is taking a big gamble with this one. Will it pay off for him? Other overcrowded cities, as well as his political enemies, are taking careful note.


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