Stockholm: Congestion Charging is Likely to Continue

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Last month residents of Stockholm, Sweden voted in a citywide referendum to continue that city’s experiment with congestion charging. By charging motorists a fee to drive into the city center, congestion charging had successfully reduced the amount of time Stockholm motorists spent waiting in traffic by 30 to 50 percent while significantly reducing air pollution and providing a number of other benefits as well. The vote represented a remarkable flip-flop in public opinion. Only months before, residents of Stockholm were firmly opposed to congestion charging. That changed once they experienced the results. There was, however, just one hitch: While the voter referendum approved congestion charging, the left-leaning political parties that had supported the system were voted out of office in the very same election.

The voter referendum on congestion charging was not legally binding. It was only advisory and it was not known whether the new government would continue the program. Now a Swedish newspaper is reporting that the newly elected Swedish government will keep the congestion charging system going with a compromise: More of the revenue that the system generates must be put towards road improvements in the Stockholm’s outer rings.

"Now that the streets of the city and the roads leading in to the city have begun to clog up again since the congestion charge was removed, it is very clear that this is an effective tool and it would be foolish not to use it", write the three Centre Party MPs in today’s Dagens Nyheter.

Parliament member Lennart Hedquist suggests that it may be possible to reach a compromise. "I am not in favour of the tax as it is now. But the compromise could be that the tax will be used for infrastructural development in the areas around Stockholm", he told The Local.

One possible lesson for New York City seems clear: Any congestion charging system that is developed for Manhattan needs to provide direct and tangible benefits to the outer boroughs.

Photo: Snerz on Flickr

  • Nicolo Macchiavelli

    Ya think? You mean you’d be willing to cut the other four boroughs in on the action? Nice idea. How about Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester? To get this done you will need the State Government to support it. It is impossible to do as only NYC (let alone Manhattan) initiative. And there is a lot of knee jerk populism out there among people who should be your allies on this. Wait until Marty Markowitz demands his cut, and he is a powerless borough Prez.
    Hopefully Bloomberg can see this as his legacy and maybe put together the forces required to make it happen.
    But there has been an exquisite silence regarding road pricing in this election cycle. The only positive movement was Suozzi floating the idea of toll access to the HOV land on the LIE. And he was spanked in the media for doing so. No good deed goes unpunished.

  • You know, I was going to expand the “possible lesson” to include the suburban counties but that just seemed to make the whole thing so politically difficult as to be impossible, so I left them out. But you may very well be right.

  • P

    Of course it has to include suburban counties. One of the lessons that should have been learned from the trial balloon on East River bridge tolls that got shot down so quickly was that any reform needs both a carrot and a stick. To talk about congestion pricing without a concrete plan about how to get a million more people around the city is doomed to failure.

    The sad thing about Stockholm is that the new government seems to want to put the money into infrastructure that will make the outlying areas more dependent on their cars. This will surely increase the frustration of the surburnites frustrated with congestion pricing.

  • Congestion pricing should be a sort of last step as part of a well coordinated plan to take the car out of Manhattan and other downtown areas in the city. It could be a last step that is planned perhaps 5-8 years in the future, but increasing mass transit service and options, establishing a solid biking infrastructure, restructuring parking incentives, etc have to come first.

    I would also say that roads and highways that feed into the city from the suburbs should be narrowed by a lane at the city border to push the traffic back out there a bit.

  • Re: P

    The suburban counties don’t need a carrot — why does a program like this need state support? If the city wants to toll its (internal) roads, that’s their business.

    Without a doubt, the money needs to get funneled to the outer boroughs (and if suburban transit infrastructure can be improved at the same time, so be it), but why should Nassau County have any say in Manhattan tolling? If suburban residents want to set city policy, they should probably live in the city. Let ’em add lanes to the LIE…

  • Re: P

    Whoops, I meant “equally to the outer boroughs and Manhattan”, not just “give it all to us in Queens”. That’s one greedy-sounding typo.

  • Here in Seattle, thanks to a silly anti-tax referendum a few years ago, sales tax is our only funding source for transit. Car tab fees were rolled back, and gas taxes can only be used for roads. I’m hoping this will change soon, but it would be lovely to get some congestion-charge money to (finally) build a decent transit infrastructure. Problem is (as many of your readers pointed out), we need the infrastructure *before* we can institute the congestion charges.

  • Someone at DOT

    “The suburban counties don’t need a carrot — why does a program like this need state support? If the city wants to toll its (internal) roads, that’s their business”

    Because under the State constitution, the City (which is a political sub-division of the State, not an independent republic, alas) has very limited home rule authority. The City does not have the right to implement taxes and tolls without the consent of the legislature and the governor. Even trivial things like adding red-light cameras require action by the legislature.

    This is the political problem at the crux of many of the city’s transportation/congestion woes. The Mayor can’t do anything of substance without Albany, but he has a limited number of chits to call in. Does he burn them on bridge tolls? Mayoral control of the schools? Equitable funding for city schools? Ground Zero authority? Housing and poverty programs?

    Hey, I agree, people in cars are Satan’s spawn, and all that, but realistically: 1. a large chunk of the people who drive (who constitute a small minority of the commuting population) do so because the alternative is pretty impractical for them; 2. These people vote. If we hit them in the pocket books(e.g., by imposing tolls and congestion pricing), without giving them a reasonable mass transit alternative (e.g., by extending the subway system to eastern Queens and Staten Island, building more direct subway or commuter rail links between “outer” boroughs, and putting elevators in every station), they’re gonna nail the people who let this happen. The benefit (knocking, what, 150,000 vehicles a day out of manhattan, out of 1 million +?) is somewhere between unknown and small in the grand scheme of things. The politcal hit is big; the political cost is big. Look elsewhere to improve traffic in NYC.

  • DOT,

    Actually Bruce Schaller’s done some interesting studies lately showing that a significant number of Manhattan car commuters originate their trips from zip codes where the vast majority of people do, in fact, use transit.

    People thought Education was unmanagable for similar reasons — state control and bureaucracy. Bloomberg showed that it could be done. I’d hope that the next Mayor comes in looking to reform transportation in the same way. It’d be a huge challenge.

    There are some very smart lawyers who believe that Automobile Club of NY versus Koch — I think that’s what the case is called that mandates that bridges can’t be tolled w/out state authority — could easily be defeated in court and worked around with new congestion charging technologies that don’t require tolls on bridges.

    But, yeah, congestion pricing is a political minefield. There are a lot of other things that a Mayor could do more easily to restrict unnecessary motor vehicle traffic. Start with on-street parking policy.

  • d

    “If we hit them in the pocket books(e.g., by imposing tolls and congestion pricing), without giving them a reasonable mass transit alternative…”

    I don’t understand why a resonable mass transit alternative for some people doesn’t involve driving their cars fro their towns with no mass transit to a town with good access, and then taking that into the city. Why is it all or nothing? Just because there’s no train station in your town doesn’t mean you have to drive into the city? Surely it would be easier to drive to the nearest town with LIRR or NJ Transit access and then commute in.

    We do the argument a great disservice by painting this as a battle between public transit loving city dwellers and car-bound suburbanites. With just a tiny bit of effort, those suburbanites have plenty of access to alternative transportation.

  • Someone at DOT

    “We do the argument a great disservice by painting this as a battle between public transit loving city dwellers and car-bound suburbanites”

    I don’t paint the “battle” this way. Rather, I’m saying that, for instance, people who want to commute between the Bronx and Queens, or Staten Island and Downtown Brooklyn, are poorly served by mass transit. So adding congestion pricing or higher tolls to the business districts they commute to won’t get them out of their cars. Also, people with disabilities, or are frail or have trouble with stairs, essentially can’t use the subway system. Without major upgrades to the transit system, these people aren’t getting out of their cars either.

    You also have to recognize that the transit system is basically maxed out, and that we have by far the highest rates of Mass Transit utilization in the country already. To fit more people into it, you need more capacity.

    Add up all the people who basically aren’t served by the transit system, or don’t fit into it, or are wealthy enough to be insensitive to tolls and congestion pricing, and I’m guessing that you’ll account for a very large chunk of the car commuting population.

    Adding cost to their commutes is unlikely to change their behavior (absent changes in the transit system that work for them). Politicians do this calculation, and see it as too politically risky. That’s what I think is going on, and I think this is pretty intractable. Therefore, I don’t think advocating for congestion pricing is productive (whatever the actual merits of congestion pricing may be).

    “People thought Education was unmanagable for similar reasons — state control and bureaucracy. Bloomberg showed that it could be done.”

    Bloomberg spent a lot of political capital on this, perhaps all he has got. Witness the stadium and olympics fiascos. He had nothing in the bank for these.

  • J:Lai

    Someone at DOT,

    you make some good points about the realpolitik of doing something like congestion pricing in NYC, but I belive your statement about car commuters lack of sensitivity to the price of tolls is incorrect.

    It is true that people who don’t have a good alternative to driving, or who are very wealthy, are unlikely to change their behavior in response to a toll. However, there is significant research to show that a significant number of people who drive into Manhattan do in fact have other alternatives. They choose to drive because it is more comfortable, convenient, or cost effective for them. Furthermore, a significant amount of the car trips into Manhattan are made by municipal employees who enjoy (ilegal) free parking and exemption from tolls.

    Forget about people going from Queens to Brooklyn – the first order of business should be reducing car trips into the central business dist. of Manhattan. The current transit system is designed to get people to and from this area, and therefore many people who drive do have an alternative. If the revenues from these tolls were used to fund improvements in transit, this would be even more true.

    Congestion pricing can work politically, but needs to focus on an initial project of limited scope that can function as a proof of concept and generate some clearly indentifiable winners to create a constituency.

  • Someone at DOT

    “Furthermore, a significant amount of the car trips into Manhattan are made by municipal employees who enjoy (ilegal) free parking”

    I don’t think this is a very significant percentage of the car traffic coming into Manhattan. Moreover, the impact they have on the streetscape is more from the way they park than from the fact that they enter Manhattan. Realistically, is a cop commuting from Rockland County going to stop using his car because he gets hit with congestion pricing? Please.

    “and exemption from tolls”

    City workers commuting to their jobs specifically do NOT have an exemption from tolls. They are not supposed to use City-issued E-Z passes for commuting, and can be fired for doing so. I have direct knowledge of several cases; I was involved in drafting policies and procedures for use of E-Z passes, and administered the E-Z pass program for a large agency. This stuff is watched closely.

    Also, all this talk of “free” parking for city employees is somewhat off base. It’s a taxable benefit. I’d a hazard a guess that compliance is pretty poor, but people who park their personal vehicles with a City-issued permit are supposed to declare this on their 1040, and pay taxes. Those who commute in City-owned vehicles are also supposed to pay taxes on the use of the vehicle [the City reports this on W2’s, so compliance is better].

    All of this is a long way of saying that the people whom you most want to get out of cars are very unlikely to change their behavior because of congestion pricing. Your examples are very poor support for the concept.

    Further, the notion that the only congestion that matters is Manhattan congestion is completely off base. Try to get around downtown Brooklyn, or Fordham Road, or areas near the Staten Island Expressway, or anywhere near the Van Wyck Expressway … Collectively, this is a lot of vehicles, and a lot of people who really don’t have good mass transit alternatives right now. Increasing their cost of driving may generate some revenue, but I don’t think it will address congestion particularly effectively.

  • Someone at DOT: A lot of the congestion in Downtown Brooklyn is caused by drivers avoiding the Verazzano toll via the Manhattan or Brooklyn bridges. Eliminate the economic incentive to do this, and you’ll take a lot of congestion out of Downtown Brooklyn.

    This reasoning extends to other places in the outer boroughs as well. A 2003 report called The Hours examined just the effect of East River Bridge Tolls (arguably a subset of full-on congestion pricing). Its authors found that more than 9% of the time that motorists spend stuck in traffic in NYC would be saved by implementing the tolls. It also found that only about 40% of these time savings would happen in Manhattan or on the 3 bridge spans. The rest would occur in the other boroughs.

    So, yes, congestion pricing just in Manhattan would have a ripple effect in the other Boroughs. (It could also be extended to the more congested areas everywhere in the city, if we wanted.)

  • Matthew

    Someone at DOT,
    Please check out the following two links, please!

    http://www.schallerconsult.com/pub/index.html
    particularly “Recent Reports” and Top-10 Drive to Work Census Tracks.

    http://www.transalt.org/campaigns/reclaiming/abovethelaw.pdf#search=%22above%20the%20law%22

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