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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Moscow authorities stepped up a war on traffic congestion by introducing paid parking in the city centre on Thursday, responding to appeals by Vladimir Putin to make the Russian capital more appealing to business.
Chaos has ruled on Moscow's roads since cars became more affordable after the collapse of the Soviet Union two decades ago. Traffic often grinds to a halt and drivers resort to double parking or block pavements, making them impassable.
Until now, drivers have often been able to bribe their way out of traffic or parking offences, and many foreign investors cite the congestion and pollution among the reasons they find Moscow an unattractive place to live and work.
All that is supposed to change under a pilot project to charge drivers 50 roubles ($1.59) an hour to use one of 500 parking spaces on central streets.
Drivers who do not pay will be sent automatic fines of 2,500 roubles ($79.94). That compares with an average monthly wage in Moscow of around $1,470, Russian news agency Itar-Tass said.
"I think the project will benefit Moscow," professional driver Sergei Polikov, 45, said in a central street where the new paid-for spaces filled up by noon.
"I don't know if the authorities will succeed yet, because all of the previous attempts have been doomed to failure. But in any case they are working in the right direction."
He hoped the latest attempt to control the traffic would succeed because illegally parked cars will be photographed and a letter with a fine sent automatically by post.
"I'm all for it. At least somewhere there will be order," said engineer Yuri Andreyev, 33, who commutes from the Medvedkovo region on the outskirts of Moscow each day.
But asked if the measure would help reduce traffic jams, he said: "No, it will help to fill pockets."
City authorities have been under pressure to find a solution to Moscow's gridlock because Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev want Moscow to become a global finance center by 2020.
It increased illegal parking fines tenfold earlier this year but traffic congestion remains bad.
The average car journey in the rush hour takes 66 minutes, second only to Tokyo at 67 minutes, according to data published by Moscow's transport and infrastructure department.
It hopes to cut the time by nearly a quarter to 50 minutes by 2025 and Moscow leaders hope to encourage people to use public transport more in the city of some 11.5 million.
The experiment is intended to be expanded to the whole of Moscow by 2016 although parking in squares and courtyards will remain free. The number of parking places will grow with time.
Some people oppose the project and about 450 have joined a group that wants to fight it. They include residents in the center who will enjoy free parking only after office hours.
Yana Sergievskaya, who runs a flower shop in the center, also had concerns. She feared the move could drive custom away.
"The majority of my clients come by car. It's impossible to park, even in the spaces there are now. The parking is bad, and now you have to pay for it as well," she said.
But Vadim Kytin, 24, who was sent out by Moscow city authorities to offer drivers help with the new system, said he had mainly come across support for the scheme.
"People understand that it is being done to benefit them. They will be willing to use it to reduce traffic jams in the center and so they can breathe the air, and it's better for the environment," he said.
Reporting by Reuters trainee Sonia Elks, editing by Timothy Heritage and Mark Heinrich