The operational plans for congestion charging in the capital are well under way and within nine months, fleets will be paying £5 per day for every one of their vehicles that enters the charging zone.
There will be a few discounts and exemptions, but for employers the bottom-line is: watch out for your bottom line. When vehicle lease deals are won and lost on the basis of pennies per month, a charge of £5 per day per vehicle, five days a week, will be a huge cost to bear - and that's the point.
The congestion charge is deliberately set at a level which will force workers and employers to think about how they travel, the time they travel and their means of transport.
The man in charge of forcing this travel 're-think' is no stranger to controversial transport plans.
Derek Turner, managing director of Transport for London, was responsible for introducing the 'red route' scheme in the capital in the 1990s, and while the scheme ultimately achieved its goals of improving traffic flow on key roads, it was a controversial initiative.
Congestion charging will turn up the controversy meter by several degrees and Turner is prepared to face the heat. The Conservative-led Westminster City Council has strongly opposed congestion charging, and no doubt the national press is already searching for the first nurse or teacher to give up his or her job in London's embattled public services because it costs £100 per month to drive to work.
Turner argues that perhaps we should be paying our public servants more if a £5 per day fee proves prohibitive, that public transport should provide a clean, safe, flexible and viable travel alternative to the car, but is firm in his view that if people drive in London during charging hours to go to the shops or for recreational purposes, they should pay the charge, regardless of what they do for a living.
It is clear, however, that he has some sympathy for essential car and van users who have no alternative to their vehicles to travel round London, and he would like a more flexible electronic charging scheme that could grade charges according to a driver's transport needs and time of travel.
But in the meantime, combating congestion is the primary goal, and Turner will face the political jury to beat gridlock.
'Congestion charging makes economic sense and transport planning sense, but the question is whether it is politically acceptable,' he said.
He now has political backing from Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, who describes congestion charging as the first 'serious attempt to tackle the chronic traffic congestion in central London by reducing the number of vehicles terminating their journeys in or passing through the charging zone'.
It's a theme picked up by Turner almost 25 years after he wrote his first paper proposing road charging as a solution to London's traffic problems. He repeats the mantra that he is not 'anti-car' merely 'anti-congestion and pro-public transport'.
Much of his defence of congestion charging centres on convincing commuters to leave their cars behind and switch to public transport. Many workers drive to work, he claims, just in case they need their cars at lunchtime.
Congestion charging will give these drivers a powerful incentive to decide at the start of the day whether they will actually need their cars during office hours, or whether the Tube or 200 brand new buses set to join the capital's bus fleet could provide a commuting alternative.
'We expect people to change the way they travel, the times they go to work and to review their options. It may not be worth driving into work on the off chance that you need your car during the day,' said Turner.
In his ideal vision, the bus and Tube network would suffice for the majority of inner London journeys, although he personally admits to using black cabs to cross the capital because of their door-to-door convenience and their ability to bypass congestion. He also recognises that certain businesses, such as courier firms or engineers with tools, have no alternative but to drive into the capital during office (ie charging) hours, but until electronic road charging is feasible, says the only way to avoid charges is to drive environmentally-friendly vehicles.
Turner acknowledges the anomaly that a line of gas-powered cars causes just as much congestion as a line of petrol powered cars, and points out that the 100% charging discount for the cleanest 'green' vehicles is a discount, not an exemption.
'It's the reduction in congestion that is the driving force for this scheme, and if all cars switched to gas we would not achieve our congestion improvement aims, and we would have to review the discount,' he said.
TfL's goal for improving congestion is a 10% to 15% reduction in traffic, equivalent to 15,000 fewer cars than the 175,000 that enter the capital daily. This is not going to create empty streets, but will achieve traffic volumes similar to the summer holidays when the capital's roads are noticeably more free-flowing.
And this is where the pro-business case for congestion charging lies. TfL estimates that gridlock costs London £4 million per week through economic inefficiency, and contends that more predictable journey times will improve business productivity (employees will be able to make more calls and more deliveries on less congested streets) and improve business service levels by allowing companies to improve their punctuality.
'I do believe people making essential journeys will find London operates more efficiently,' said Turner. Should there be no improvement, however, and hundreds of thousands of drivers and employers will soon raise their voices to object to a £5 per day fee for no discernible benefit.
TfL does not, however, have a bigger stick with which to beat motorists if traffic volumes do not decline, the Mayor having pledged that the £5 charge will not rise during his current term of office.
Turner, however, remains confident. 'I think the charge is at the right level to achieve the 10% to 15% reduction in traffic,' he said. 'I would not be surprised if it was less than 15% but I would be disappointed if it does not exceed 10%.'
But it will only be in February 2003 at the anniversary of the start of the scheme that meaningful measurements of its success or failure will be valid. Only then will drivers have had an opportunity to assess all their options, wait for their parking season tickets to expire and become accustomed to public transport alternatives. Only then will the impact of different weather conditions balance out (commuting by bicycle might be viable in summer but not winter), and only then will the traffic-flow improvements delivered by the anticipated fewer accidents become apparent.
Until then, Turner will have to push for traffic improvements in the face of cynicism that congestion charging is nothing more than a revenue raising exercise. 'The issue is to reduce congestion,' he insists. 'If it was about raising revenue we would look at a different pricing structure, and not have the discounts and exemptions.'
How fleets can ease the administrative burden
FLEETS will be offered two specific schemes to pay congestion charges in London and reduce their administrative costs to a minimum. Both will require fleets to register the licence plates of their vehicles in advance with the Transport for London (TfL) database, for a fee of £10 per vehicle.
Fleets will then have the choice of a 'decrementing' scheme whereby they pay TfL a lump sum in advance, and TfL deducts £5.50 per day for every vehicle that its cameras identify in the charging zone. The additional 50p is to compensate TfL for vehicles not spotted by the cameras (whose reliability is in the high 90% range, but not 100%).
Alternatively, fleets can pay-on-use, with TfL sending invoices for pre-registered vehicles identified in the charging zone. Derek Turner, managing director of TfL, believes the charging scheme will create new opportunities for fleet supply companies to manage congestion charges on behalf of corporate customers. Conscious that there is a cost for employers in processing invoices, he said: 'We are very anxious that the scheme does not involve any hidden costs, or at least that it minimises the hidden costs that businesses have to bear. Real efforts are being made to make this a transparent charge.' Fleets seeking discounts for alternatively-fuelled vehicles will have to use DVLA records to show the vehicles meet the environmental criteria.
Congestion charging fact file
The daily congestion charge will be £5 per day per vehicle.