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COMMENTARY

When Ken Livingstone visits Great George Street next Thursday evening, he won't know if Labour's National Executive Committee will make him official candidate for mayor of London. But he's crystal clear about the capital's traffic, what he intends to do if elected, and why he sees cutting congestion and pollution as vital.

'Simply breathing London's air doubles the chance of developing lung cancer,' he point out. 'We now face the horrendous reality that half of all children who live on major roads have developed asthma.'

Livingstone is currently most likely to be London's first mayor, having overtaken Richard Branson in the Evening Standard opinion polls and gained half the votes in a BBC poll of 1,000 London Labour party members, 31% more than Glenda Jackson. But he won't stand unless his party chooses him.

He is not surprised that getting people out of cars and onto buses and trains is the main plank of all the declared candidates from all parties. 'The abysmal state of London's transport makes it the biggest immediate problem. The new mayor must solve it in the first term. If that doesn't happen, then the new post will lose its credibility.'

Talk to any traffic engineer or accountant in the business, and they still see the Greater London Council's fare reductions on the London Underground in 1981 as classic. At a time of stagflation, Livingstone challenged convention, reduced fares by 35%, increased passenger miles by 70%, increased fare revenue by 11% and persuaded 5% of car drivers to switch modes. Road times were slashed and taxi drivers still remember the all too brief respite. Then Prime Minister Thatcher scotched it.

That was at a time when the Underground could carry more. Today, Tubes and stations are full for much of the day. Although Livingstone foresees a recession next year and fewer London jobs, a repeat of 1981 fare reductions is unlikely. More public transport means more buses and trains.

He wants the return of conductors, which will cut delays at bus stops and improve safety. And he wants more dedicated bus lanes and direct through routes across and around the capital, with better Routemasters to follow soon.

Better rail services attracting more passengers will require increased frequency trains, so avoiding the precision planning needed for any trip. Cleaner, safer, reliable trains would quickly cause car use to fall dramatically, especially in south London. Train and rail operators are destined for tough talking.

Improved public transport will need to be paid for, and the new mayor will tax congestion. After some dithering, Prime Minister Blair has promised the necessary legal powers, even if Deputy PM Prescott doesn't get the nationwide powers in his Transport White Paper into the Queen's speech.

Livingstone is adamant that he won't tax anyone for simply having a car, because 'there are many poor Londoners who need them'. His target are those who choose, day in day out, to drive into and across London. He will also insist that more appropriately sized vehicles replace today's big lorries.

Personal cost is what shifts the balance in drivers' minds, he reckons, so he will tax office car parking and persuade the Chancellor to remove all company car subsidies. Congestion charging will come, but firms trying to prove their smart card electronic systems will be disappointed that he thinks that is far into the future.

It is the notorious side of Livingstone which allows him to joke about introducing 'a Taliban band of traffic wardens with powers to exact summary justice'. He is happy to shock anybody.

None of Livingstone's ideas to date are new, and when you probe his plans - how long will they take, what the cost is, expected income, etc, his answers are sketchy. For a man who wants to shake London within four years, I am surprised that so much is up in the air or up to others.

'I don't have an army of experts like Prescott at the DETR, but I presume that somebody in there is primed and ready to get on with the job,' he says. 'All I've got are a couple of researchers and volunteers. At this stage, my first job is to win the nomination.'

He is a likeable and plausible man. I almost believe he can succeed, especially with his track record. He is realistic about the degree of change to make an impact: 'We need to make everyone within the Circle Line presume that they will travel by public transport. If 10% of drivers leave their cars away from the centre, then London will be much better soon.'

For a start, he says, the new mayor and the 25 members of London's assembly must pledge before seeking election that they will not bring in a Greater London Authority car pool.

Ken Livingstone will address a debate: 'How can the new Mayor for London reduce road traffic congestion and atmospheric pollution?' hosted by the ICE's London association and the London Society of Chartered Accountants at 1 Great George Street, SW1P 3AA, 5.30pm for 6pm next Thursday, 19 November.

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