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Tolling Points

High Stakes, Higher Purpose, Drives Stockholm’s Congestion Pricing System

By: 
Bill Cramer

It’s one thing to introduce the world’s first urban open road tolling system and gradually build it to perfection.

It’s something else to execute flawlessly in a major metropolitan area from the first day of operation—with multiple vendors, 18 charging points across a 21-square-mile area, and massive public and political pressure to either make the system work perfectly, or make it go away.

Ten years after the city of Stockholm introduced its successful congestion tax, Edward Hirst, Global Strategy Manager at Oslo-based Q-Free ASA, told the story of the project’s success at IBTTA’s 2015 Summit on All-Electronic Tolling, Managed Lanes & Interoperability, July 12-14, 2015 in Miami.

A Higher Purpose

From the beginning, Hirst said, congestion pricing was just one part of a wider environmental initiative to improve quality of life, reduce air and noise pollution, and improve mobility across Stockholm. The day after the system took effect, every fourth car disappeared from the road, “so people could actually see that the system was working.”

But getting the project from concept to reality was easier said than done. Congestion pricing was something that elected officials “took a while to agree on,” after the mayor declared on national television that Stockholm would never accept a congestion tax. That same mayor later formed a coalition with an environmental party that supported the measure.

But with 40% of the media coverage opposed to the project, only 3% in favor, and the rest neutral, the congestion tax passed with a daunting condition—a public referendum at the end of the seven-month trial that would decide whether the experiment continued. “This was a project which was delivered in an atmosphere of defeatism and fear,” Hirst recalled, with “one shot at getting it right.”

High Anxiety

The high level of public and political expectation meant that a complex system had to be operating perfectly on the day it opened. “Everything had to be in place,” Hirst recalled. “Cameras, roadside, back office” all had to be fully operational. “Points of sale had to have equipment, people had to know how to use them, and call centers had to be up and running…Everything had to be right, and at the end there was going to be this vote, yes or no.”

And since the system was part of a wider environmental and quality of life program, “it wasn’t just a means of collecting money,” he added. System operators knew the referendum results would depend in part on the performance of new transit and rail capacity, new routes, and park and ride facilities that would be introduced alongside.

High Fives All Around

As the subject specialist on the delivery team, Q-Free focused much of its effort on the 18 unique locations for the charging points—from road widths, to the location of gantries and other equipment. Hirst said personnel also made a difference: “You have to have the right people with the right attitude who want to get it done.” Despite short lead time to put the project in place, the company field-tested every aspect of the system on a test track in Norway before it was shipped and installed.

The diligence paid off: In the first two months of operation, the system logged 12.5 million passages, 3.9 million tax decisions, only 1,300 appeals to tax authorities, and only 30 to the courts. “The pictures were accurate,” Hirst said. “People weren’t being wrongly charged for any of the passages they made. So things were going well.”

The referendum margin was narrow, with 53% voting to continue the system. But by now, the successful result is a distant memory, and Stockholm’s congestion pricing system enjoys wide acceptance.

“By the end of the trial, people liked the project,” Hirst said. “They could see what it did. They could actually appreciate the difference it was making.” A decade later, traffic volumes in Stockholm are still at historic lows, and a second successful congestion charging system has been introduced in Gothenburg, Sweden’s second-largest city.

For more industry news and examples, download the summary of IBTTA’s 2015 Summit on All-Electronic Tolling, Managed Lanes & Interoperability, July 12-14, 2015 in Miami.

photo credit: Slussen area in Stockholm, Södermanland, Sweden via photopin (license)

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