March 3, 2006
Stockholm tries tolls to curb use of cars by Lawrence Solomon
|London began tolling its downtown roads in 2003. The novel plan proved to be brilliant, the naysayers proved to be wrong: Traffic congestion ended as some 70,000 travellers per day switched to public transit, motorcycles, bicycles, taxis and other alternatives.||
In 2006, Stockholm began tolling on an even larger scale and it, too, is proving brilliant. The media and policy pundits who predicted failure are revising their views, as are members of the general public, who began 80% in opposition. All Europe, in fact, seems headed for the express lanes: Under EU-wide directives, universal road tolling systems are soon set to break out, starting with trials in the U.K. in 2010 and a four-city system in the Netherlands in 2012.
Stockholm’s local government had expected that the peak-hour tolls – as much as $3 to cross into or out of a tolling zone – would reduce traffic by 10% to 15%, increasing traffic speeds and cleaning the air. The fee system exceeded its expectation: Car traffic in these so-called Stockholm Trials plummeted 25%, public transit use is up 40% and Stockholm street traffic now resembles that of stress-free summer days.
“People love their cars,” said Ylva Yngveson of the Institute for Private Economics before the six-month trials began on Jan. 3, in predicting that Stockholm residents weren’t about to abandon their vehicles, regardless of the cost increases.
“Another study we did several years ago showed that people would more likely change jobs, work more or move in order to maintain a budget for their car.”
That prediction proved wrong. People may love their cars, but only when they’re cheap dates. When the loves became too demanding, many Stockholm residents dumped them. A study by Yngveson’s institute, a division of the Swedish bank Foreningsparbanken, may explain why.
In 2006, mostly because of the new toll system, car commuters travelling between Stockholm and its suburbs will be spending around $1,000 more, the Institute found. As a result, people have been questioning their need for a car.
The Institute study compared alternatives to owning a private vehicle. A Volkswagen Golf owner, for example, could swap his car for a transit pass and 24 10-kilometre taxi rides per month. Or, if he wanted to rent a car for a weekend each month, his former car budget would pay for 16 taxi trips plus the transit pass. A Volvo owner would have more transportation options still. His car budget would finance a transit pass and 32 taxi trips per month.
“Taxis are stereotyped as being somewhat of a luxury, but with the increase in fees, I think that this label will eventually fade,” predicts Goran Jaxeus, managing director at Taxi Stockholm. “Many people have a second car, and when they compare the cost to own and maintain it, a taxi is a clear alternative.”
Stockholm’s taxi industry expects to become a big winner in the move to tolling roads, just as London’s cabbies struck it rich when the streets of London were tolled. Those who expected to be the big losers – Stockholm retailers who feared suburban customers would stop patronizing their establishments – have just joined the ranks of the converted. According to preliminary figures released this week by the Swedish Institute of Trade, merchants are now better off, quite apart from any reluctance of suburban shoppers to make shopping trips to the city. “Trade in the city has increased. In many areas it is up 4% to 5%,” said Ulf Ramme, who led the study of sales in large shopping centres, several large shopping districts, and some 900 individual shops. Ramme speculates that a “lock-in effect” may explain the surge in business. City shoppers seem less inclined to go to out-of-town centres on weekdays, when it is likely to cost money, choosing instead to make their purchases closer to home. With all this good news, the public’s skepticism is fading. Four hundred thousand Stockholm area drivers now have transponders, allowing automatic debits from their bank accounts of the tolling charges. One person in three now favours the road toll, according to a survey conducted between Jan. 18 and Feb. 21.The trials end on July 31. A report will then be issued, followed by a referendum in September.
Lawrence Solomon, author of the forthcoming book Toronto Sprawls, is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute and Consumer Policy Institute, divisions of Energy Probe Research Foundation.; www.urban.probeinternational.org.
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