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Congestion Pricing Trial Shows That Seeing is Believing

By: 
Bill Cramer

Congestion Pricing Trial Shows That Seeing is Believing

One of the stories you hear a lot from IBTTA members is that familiarity breeds public support: that the more drivers get to experience the benefits of safer, more reliable roads, the more willing they are to pay their tolls.

It turns out the same is true of congestion pricing, judging by nearly 15 years of experience in Stockholm, Sweden. According to a news report earlier this summer, a pricing measure that had the support of scarcely one-third of local residents when it was introduced in January 2006 has now become a cornerstone of the city’s effort to control traffic flows.

If you click through to the story, you’ll want to skip quickly past the headline—since congestion pricing does not deliver anything close to “car-free cities.” But CityFix, a publication of the World Resources Institute (WRI), still tells a compelling story that reinforces a familiar yet essential message: when you price roadway access as if it matters, drivers respond.

Seeing is Believing

Before Stockholm began its six-month congestion pricing trial in 2006, the project’s future did not look particularly promising. Only 36% of the city supported the initiative, and opponents were able to link congestion charging to “existing negative attitudes to taxes, inequity, restricting freedom and mobility, public interventions, and national interference in regional matters,” Jonas Eliasson of the Stockholm-based Center for Transport Studies told WRI.

But three things happened during the trial period.

The sky did not fall.

The sun still rose every morning, right on schedule.

And drivers began to see that the benefits of congestion pricing far outweighed the cost of 10 to 30 Swedish krona (US$1.20 to $3.60), depending on time of day.

“In July 2006, after the initial trial was completed, a referendum held in Stockholm and several surrounding communities found 53% of voters supported reintroducing the congestion charge,” WRI recalls. “Since the referendum, support has continued to increase: a 2007 poll showed 66% support, and in 2013 there was over 70% support among Stockholm residents.”

How Congestion Pricing Sells Itself

WRI Visiting Fellow Jacob Sacks and Transportation Research Analyst Thet Hein Tun lay out some familiar factors behind the success of the Stockholm effort.

Traffic volumes declined 21% during the trial, 20% over the first five years, delivering a tangible reduction in rush hour congestion.

Nearly a quarter of local commutes switched from private vehicles to transit, and commercial traffic fell off by 15%.

Traffic safety improved.

Tailpipe emissions fell 10 to 15%, depending on the pollutant.

And the evidence before drivers’ eyes answered their initial fears of “being priced out of using the roads, being forced to change their travel behavior, overcrowded public transit, and/or simply displacing congestion to other areas that were unaffected by the charge,” WRI notes.

“Instead, they discovered that the changes were not as bad as they had expected, traffic volumes and congestion decreased, and the public transit network was not overburdened by the increase in ridership.”

From there, things went from good to better. Familiarity bred acceptability, as drivers became accustomed to the usage charge. Political support grew. And before long, Sweden was building on its success.

“Since 2016, charges were raised for vehicles entering the inner city, while new charges were introduced for the Essingeleden motorway, the major artery around the city and the busiest road in the country,” WRI reports. And Gothenburg, the country’s second-largest city, introduced its own congestion pricing system in 2013.

Get a world-wide view of user-financed transportation! Attend IBTTA’s International Summit of Rome, October 15-17, 2017 in Rome, Italy.

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