Sweden proves congestion tolls work

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
August 4, 2007

Long-suffering car commuters in Stockholm finally got their wish this week: value for money in the use of their roads. Users of rapid transit services got their wish, too: transit that is truly rapid and provides better service. Pedestrians are breathing freer. All are saying “skol” to the resumption of tolling on Stockholm roads.

Just over one year ago, in July, 2006, the Stockholm Trials ended. For the previous seven months, anyone entering or leaving the city on weekdays faced a charge that varied with congestion – as little as $1.50 at low-volume periods, such as 6:30 a.m. to 6:59 a.m., as much as $3 at a peak period such as 7:30 a.m. to 8:29 a.m., and no more than $9 over the course of any day.

Before the trials began, public opinion ran strongly against the tolls. By the end of the trials, most in both city and suburbs had been won over. The stats explain why.

The number of vehicles crossing the charge cordon decreased 22% – far more than the 10% to 15% predicted. But traffic dropped pretty well across the board. Inner city roads saw a 16% reduction in kilo-metres travelled; less central roads saw smaller reductions. Only the bypass roads, taken by those who didn’t need to enter the city, saw an increase, and that was modest at 4% to 5%. Ironically, the toll increased car usage by city residents who didn’t need to leave the city, and so didn’t face tolls: With the city less congested and more pleasant to drive in, they took to their vehicles more often. Outside the city, where many roads also experienced less congestion, some drivers likewise rediscovered their auto.

With less traffic, health, safety and the environment improved. The Stockholm Trial saw a decline in the number of personal-injury accidents of 5% to10% within the congestion-tax area. Emissions from motor vehicles in the city dropped substantially, preventing an estimated 25 to 30 premature deaths per year – a health benefit about three times higher than would have been gained through increased fuel prices. Noise levels are down, too.

The biggest drawback that people feared – the financial cost of complying with the congestion prices – played out without profound upset. A mere 4% of the private vehicles tolled accounted for one third of the toll revenue. This disproportionately affluent group – representing 1.2% of the population of the greater Stockholm County area – bore the lion’s share of the financial burden of unclogging the road system. In contrast, most drivers paid tolls only occasionally, doing little damage to their bank balances.

People did adapt to the charges, but not in the ways that many had expected. Carpooling did not increase appreciably. Neither did telecommuting. People who did not need to travel into or out of the city during working hours tended not to. People who continued to drive to work tended to do so without dramatically changing the hours at which they travelled – they were not fussed by the round-trip charge of $3 to $6 per day. Those who needed to commute for work, and did not want to pay the rush-hour congestion fees, overwhelmingly switched to a greatly expanded public transit system, rather than changing their hours of travel. Public transit trips across the cordon increased by 45,000 per day.

The Stockholm Trial, in fact, provided an object lesson for public transit planners around the world: Although the Stockholm Trial was preceded by a major buildup of transit facilities, that, on its own, accomplished little. It “is not possible to show that the investments in public transport (park-and-ride facilities, expanded bus and rail services) had any visible effect on the total number of trips taken on public transport during autumn 2005, before the charges began to apply,” a government study states. “Of the 22% decrease in car travel across the charge zone, only 0.1% at the most could have been caused by the expanded bus services.”

Public transit users are better off now than before – spanking new buses travel on uncongested roads, getting them to their destinations faster. Little wonder that city residents voted in a referendum to make the congestion charge permanent. Little wonder, too, that public opinion outside the city – once vehemently opposed to the tolls – also changed dramatically. By the end of the trial, 54% of county inhabitants felt the congestion scheme was a “fairly/very good decision,” while 42% deemed it a “fairly/ very bad decision.”

As of Aug. 1, that fairly/very good decision rules the road.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute, a division of Energy Probe Research Foundation. He is also a director of PEMA, a non-profit with patents on toll-road technology.

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