February 01, 2006

Stockholm Experiments with Congestion Charging

Before the trial, city newspapers had reported ever-increasing opposition to the program ranging from 60% to 80% of all citizens.

One month into the trial, however, authorities claim to be pleased with the initial results. In the first week traffic was reduced by 25% to 30%, more than experts had predicted. At the same time, traffic has since shown an increase following the initial reduction, and some researchers fear that seven months may not be enough time to accurately gauge the longer-term impact of the congestion charging scheme.

Stockholm’s mayor, Anika Billstrom, who had promised not to go forward with congestion charging when running for office, subsequently became a strong proponent of the program and the Stockholm City Council adopted the proposal for congestion charging in June 2003. A formal decision on implementation was made a year later by the Swedish Parliament in its Congestion Charges Act.  The proposal has been seen as a political deal made by Prime Minister Göran Persson’s Social Democrat minority government to secure Green Party support for the formation of a coalition government.

Preparations for the congestion charging program began on August 22, 2005 with the extension of the public transportation system to accommodate an expected shift away from downtown travel by car.  Close to 200 new buses, 16 new bus lines, and new park-and-ride spaces were introduced so that longer-distance travelers from the municipalities surrounding Stockholm could enter the city’s core more easily.  Downtown buses, subway and commuter train lines have also been reinforced with additional departures and cars to handle the increased commuter volume.

The congestion charging system makes up a single zone with a boundary that encircles downtown Stockholm. Cameras mounted on 18 checkpoints take photographs of license plates when vehicles pass into and out of the inner city on weekdays from 6:30 a.m. to 6.29 p.m. Three toll rates, SEK10 ($US 1.28), SEK15 ($US 1.92), SEK20 ($US 2.56), rise and fall with morning and afternoon peek hours. The maximum charge per day per vehicle is SEK 60 ($US 7.50).

Vehicle owners need to make their payment no later than five days after their drive into downtown.  Payments can be made instantly through a small transponder that is installed within the car and linked to the owner’s bank account; or at selected convenience stores, Internet banks, or with Plusgiro or Bankgiro.  If payment is not made on time, a reminder is issued with an administration charge of SEK 70 ($9).  Failure to respond to the reminder results in an additional SEK 500 ($60) fee.

Some flaws in the system have become apparent.  Over 1,000 users have claimed that they have been issued charges for trips that were never made.  Four weeks into the trial, reminder penalties were issued for back payments on 45,000 charges.

The trial’s period will conclude on July 31, 2006.  A referendum on the permanent implementation of congestion charging will be held in conjunction with the general election on September 17, 2006. Despite the initial problems, the Stockholm trials are thus far widely viewed as a success.  Dagens Nyheter, a Stockholm newspaper, conducted a poll in which nine out of ten car travelers have reported a reduction in travel times averaging 15 to 20 minutes. Some of the stronger opponents to the program seem to have changed their minds and are now praising the trial. One tabloid even used the headline “City Reclaimed.”

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