Sunday, January 19, 2003

Easing congestion

The Congestion Charge comes to life in around a month. For those of you who drive into London, it's going to cost you an extra £1000 or more per year to come into town, at £5 a visit. I'm intrigued by the payment processes chosen. Given that building a tollbooth a few hundred yards from Tower Bridge is not too practical, the payment methods chose are all after the fact - go to a newsagent, a car park, a website or whatever and make your payment. Other tolls in the UK are collected using dashboard mounted devices from which a charge is debited as you pass through a 'gate', not dissimilar I imagine to the Florida SunPass, so I was pretty surprised not to see that implemented. But, the "new media" channels feature prominently - you will be able to pay via a website or via mobile phone text. Neither of these methods have proven too reliable to date, so it will be a good test of mainstream use (I am sure I have seen figures that say about £130 million will be collected annually - that's a lot of £5s) and, if they hold up, that will bode well. If they don't it will certainly be the end of the Congestion Charge, but maybe not the end of those methods. But given that this is an "overhead" and after the fact, if the methods available are not incredibly quick and minimally invasive, there will be a lot of chaos. The congestion charging website is at www.cclondon.com - I've tried to check it out today but keep getting a 404 - can't tell if that is a recurrence of the problems I had with my connection the other day or whether it really is down. I hope not the latter - if it's down with no load that wouldn't be good! I met some people awhile ago who were proposing a mobile commerce system that would let you pay for anything anywhere using your mobile. This makes a lot of sense (I've been a proponent of using mobiles as the equivalent of a portable digital certificate for a long time), but needs some thinking about before you do it. During the meeting, I realised these folks didn't appear to have thought it through, despite the fact that they were partnering with a very large operator. The idea was that you would run a WAP application on your phone that, when you wanted to pay, you'd fire up - it would go to a website and either take money from a stored value area or debit your card directly. Unless this app is on a hotkey (and has been preconfigured by an auto-SMS or by the operator on purchase) I just didn't see someone standing in a queue in Sainsbury's fiddling with their phone, plus so many supermarkets are huge warehouses these days that the odds of getting good reception are not good. I could see this model maybe working online, and that's where it's being used first. It will be interesting to watch the results - 70% of mobile phones in the UK are pre-pay (or pay as you go as we call them here) and given that this new process requires registration, a credit card or bank details (exactly the opposite of what someone with a prepay phone wants to use), never mind the fact that the customer will have to pay for the call and the merchant will stay pay the spread, it could be a bust before it starts. I won't name the firm, but I will watch out for how it goes.

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