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Lessons from the Stockholm Congestion Tax

stockholm.jpg This article was written by Alan AtKisson in August 2006. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

Here in this country of nature-lovers, berry-pickers, and climate-change activist weathermen, you would think that the introduction of a modest toll imposed on cars driving into the capitol city -- enacted with the intention of reducing rush-hour traffic, improving air quality and health, increasing use of public transportation and multiple other benefits -- would experience political smooth sailing. Especially after a similar initiative in London has worked beautifully, while charging more than twice the proposed toll at rush hour.

Not so. Or at least, not at first.

Last year, the politics around the planned "congestion tax/environmental fee" got so heated that Stockholm's normally calm radio channels began to sound more like America's whiniest call-in shows. Friendships strained under the divide between the "Ja" and "Nej" side of the equation, and many commentators predicted that Stockholm's currently left-leaning city government would experience a crushing defeat on the strength of its support for this issue.

There were even open calls for civil disobedience from car-owner support groups, who made it possible for members to purchase special license-plate "protectors," plastic covers that would foil the cameras designed to snap a picture of your car's license plate and ding you for the toll.

All that is behind us now. Because the toll works. And the people like it.

And it has been discontinued.

Discontinuing the toll was actually the plan all along. The backstory of why that was (as I understand it) goes like this: the original idea was promoted by the Swedish Green Party, which meant that it was automatically opposed (or at least, less than enthusiastically supported) by nearly everyone else. Unfortunately, Green support is often the political kiss of death here, even for ideas that everyone agrees are quite good. The political compromise that got the idea through (it was actually forced on the city by the national parliament, not the city council) involved framing it as an experiment, the "Stockholm Trial" in official talk. Stockholm would try it for seven months, and look at the data, and then the people of Stockholm would vote about whether to turn the system back on, or dismantle it.

And that's where we are now. The toll system, which worked nearly flawlessly since being inaugurated on 1 January, was turned off on 31 July.

The very next day, traffic jams reappeared on the major arteries that had, magically, been free of such jams for the previous half-year.

Here are some of the early results from the Stockholm Trial, which involved a tax of between US $1.50 and 2.75 or so per car, depending on time of day and prevailing exchange rate:

1. The Trial reduced traffic even more than expected. Planners expected 10-15% reduction, and they got about 22% -- nearly a quarter, on average.

2. Mobility improved significantly. The data showed this, and everyone talked about it: it was a lot easier to get around, and you could more reliably predict that you would arrive at your destination on time.

3. Carbon dioxide emissions were reduced 2-3% overall in Stockholm County, just as a result of this one policy. Reductions were around 14% in the inner city, compared to pre-toll levels.

4. Particulates, NOx, and other noxious pollutants were also (rather obviously) reduced, and science-based cost-benefit calculations show the policy would save a number of people from early death with this policy -- in fact, it would save about 300 cumulative life-years. Probably about 25 people were spared the agony of a traffic injury, as well, just during the short period of the trial.

5. Public transport use increased by about 6% (but about 1.5% of that is credited to higher fuel prices during this period). And we got new buses.

6. At the start of the trial, 55% of Stockholmers thought the trial was a "bad decision." That number fell to 41% after just a few months, as people experienced the effects directly, and the number calling it a "good decision" of course rose. Even those whose travel habits forced them to pay the toll showed an increase in approval for it.

With all this positive news about a working strategy, one might assume that the political battle is over, and that the referendum will be a kind of formality. Au contraire. Already the local scribes are beginning to write fascinating things, such as (according to my wife's paraphrase translation of a recent lead news editorial), "Yes, it's all very well that the thing worked as planned and made life significantly better ... but since the political process that originally introduced it was flawed, we should reject it now." Such arcane reasoning is being countered by comely columnists in the free daily papers who say (in a typical example) that they will vote yes "for the environment, for myself, for my daughter."

The vote is 17 September. I will be watching it like a hawk, because if even highly educated Swedes -- living in green-city Stockholm, in a country with a whole Ministry for Sustainable Development and a national policy of becoming fossil-fuel free by 2020 -- won't vote "Ja" for a demonstrably effective policy that has obviously improved their quality of life ... well, we will all have go back to the sustainability strategy whiteboard.

I should add that the Stockholm Trial was not just a new toll, but included also an increase in the region's already-excellent public transportation options, including even a significant reduction in price for single trips. You can get the whole story, in the form of a detailed evaluation report, in English.

Oh, and did I confess yet that I never once paid the new toll? I avoided it completely ... by driving an ethanol-fueled car (and commuting by bus). Environmentally-certified cars are exempt. We get our license tags photographed like everyone else when we pass the payment stations around the city -- big brother is watching your driving habits -- but the computers just ignore us. Partly as a result of this intentional loophole, sales of cars like mine have increased dramatically in Stockholm.

Congestion pricing is, by the way, one of the first dozen "Policies to Change the World" selected for promotion by the newly formed World Future Council. Maybe it's time your city tried this policy, too. Just don't bother with the turning-it-off part.

Letter from Stockholm: Goodbye, for Now, to a Successful Traffic Congestion Tax is a part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on Oct. 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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