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Is there no hope of escaping the gigantic cash registers?

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Readers may recall my complaint a few weeks ago that the great American developer Trammell Crow had never been quoted in connection with London's congestion charge. The way things look after a month, Crow's axiom, that congestion is an indicator of economic activity and is therefore 'better than recession', would have looked like a shrewd guess at who is going to end up paying the bill for this attempt to control traffic volume in London.

Last week, with exquisite irony, it engulfed the Rogers brothers, finding Lord Rogers of Vibrant City fame apparently lost for words but hoping for the best, while outraged Peter Rogers of Stanhope and the Construction Industry Strategic Forum, backed by hundreds of building firms, was demanding wholesale exemptions for vehicles serving building sites. Without this concession, Rogers claimed, the cost of every major building project in London would be pushed up by £50,000 and building firms could end up paying as much as £800,000 a year in charges.

If these estimates are even half way correct they mean that, in practical terms, the congestion charge has already become a tax that not so much deters traffic as increases the extremely high cost of building in central London.Well, will it have been worth it, for what may be only a few weeks of half-term traffic? Of course not, but precisely because everybody expected failure and only differed on how it would come about, there is more - or rather less - to come. When Transport for London introduces increased charges, as it will have to if it is to maintain the fiction that it can make tumbleweed blow through the once-crowded streets of the metropolis without destroying its economy, it will be hit by the double whammy of the planned extensions to the charging area.

Quite apart from their success or failure, there is something rebarbative about projects like the congestion charge, where the tax gathering function overshadows real social gain. Even the hugely successful London Eye, despite the hypnotic power of its urban vistas, does not escape a kind of horror engendered by its 24-hour-a-day rotation, extracting money day and night from the queues feeding the giant turnstile in an atmosphere oddly reminiscent of the distribution of rations in a refugee camp.

The same is true of all the great new sports stadia that have been built in recent years, burdened as they are with retail outlets, souvenir concessions, coffee bars, restaurants and so on, places that cannot be escaped without a purchase.

Perhaps the only refuge from such gigantic cash registers is that perennial challenge for architects and designers, the house of the future.But the latest data suggests that the house has become no more than a consumer envelope with the future confined to more and more elaborate integrated consumer electronics inside it.

Despite 10 years of magazine advertising showing loft spaces converted into home offices, the big manufacturers in this field - Microsoft, LG, Samsung and Philips - seem to have other ideas.Microsoft is the only one to focus on the computer with a Windows development that turns a wireless PC into a home entertainment controller. LG is less frivolous, with a huge £6,000 'Internet Fridge' that can read bar codes and order replacements for items that have been consumed, as well as 'talk' to microwaves and washing machines. Unfortunately, so far purchasers have not been clever enough to use these functions, preferring to play with the 380mm touch-screen games facility on the refrigerator door instead.

There is a lesson for transport engineers in this somewhere.

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