Today, in Stockholm, congestion charging is like driving on the right side of the road: Of course you do it. It’s now become the norm. But it wasn’t always that way.
As Stockholm’s lively, compact, and well-connected downtown core became even more bustling over time—with more people, businesses, and visitors herding to its center—this growth came with an important choice: either restrain car traffic or let it get increasingly worse.
So, we decided to relieve the city core from congestion and emissions, markedly. And once Stockholmers experienced the congestion charges in action, they quickly witnessed the benefits.
Here’s how we did it.
First, we had the experts ready
Most transportation experts agree: It’s silly not to charge cars on congested roads. But for politicians, challenging the status quo carries risk (and, of course, reward). When politicians dare to deal with congestion, experts need to quickly arm them with answers. Stockholm already had a community of congestion-charge experts who knew the local intricacies and were ready to help when the opportunity emerged. They served as allies on the congestion-charging campaign trail, if you will. This was key.
Second, we started on a trial basis
With congestion charges, the hardest part is the politics. Yes, you also need to invest in system design, enforcement, and billing technology. But the hardest part is, without question, political.
Here’s how Stockholm handled that. We introduced congestion charges on a trial basis for only seven months. The trial was a way to gain political acceptance, but it also helped with public acceptance. People saw immediate benefits and continuous congestion reductions. Adjusting to it was easier than they had feared.
Next, we had a public referendum on permanent charges. The system was already set up and obviously effective, so the concept was easy for people to consider and ultimately keep.
A small majority voted for just that. And when the permanent charges were in place, public support leaped to two-thirds. Compare that to only one-third support before the trial.
The lesson is to avoid timing a vote when people feel most anxious about the shift: when a detailed proposal has emerged but is not implemented yet.
Third, we designed efficiently and communicated effectively
Our engineers designed the charging system for efficiency. They placed license plate recognition cameras on the bottlenecks leading to the inner city, charging just enough to eliminate every fifth trip. This was enough to dramatically reduce congestion. Charge amounts varied by time of day, but the system was simple to understand.
Our communicators decided to emphasize the environmental benefits. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, Stockholmers found our “clean air” and “green cities” language more engaging, as concepts, than “efficiency.”
And while the politicians had to navigate complex revenue, legal aspects, and power battles, they managed to keep exemptions and other demands to a minimum. This freedom enabled a system design that worked.
Fourth, we let drivers decide how to adjust
We charged up to 2 euros per crossing, in or out of the inner-city area. That was enough for drivers to consider: 1) when, where, and if to travel, 2) how to combine errands, 3) when to use transit, and, for some, 4) where to move long-term.
Consequently, half of the car trips that were eliminated shifted to transit. That’s a lot, which shows that we have a good transit system. How drivers adjust will vary by city, but generally you want to let them choose, while offering many different options.
Few cars disappeared completely, but almost everyone made fewer trips. Many private car drivers didn’t even realize that they changed behavior. That’s because travel patterns are less repetitive than people believe, and most motor traffic is not commuting.
Even the professional drivers trimmed routes, and when they drove, they benefited from faster and more reliable travel. And we found no effect on retail activity. It was a win-win.
Fifth, we used the revenues for transportation investments
We had no revenue target initially, but we used all revenues for road and rail investment in the region. Ten years after the trial, in 2016, we finally raised the charge amount for the first time.
We’re now using the additional revenues to build metro line extensions. The use of the revenues affects who wins most from the system. So, by investing our congestion-charge revenues into mass transit, we’re helping as many people as possible. Another win-win.
Now, Stockholmers are asking a different question: What’s a fair price to pay for occupying crowded space and adding to city emissions? Our response is this: As we consider refining the system, it will indeed make sense to charge the most polluting vehicles more.
At the very beginning of this process, we didn’t have a master plan for these factors to align successfully. But, thankfully, they did. And if you’re a city considering something similar, the dos and don’ts of congestion charges are now well investigated. We highly recommend them.
Take it from us. When congestion is severe, use a charge. As people experience the benefits, support will rise. To get those benefits, tee up the experts in advance, design for efficiency, and let the drivers adjust. Communicate effectively and make sure the money goes to improving life in your city. That’s how you make it mainstream.
Anne Bastian, PhD, leads strategy and analytics at the Stockholm City Transport Administration.
Stockholm is a member of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, a collaboration of leading global cities cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80% to 100% by 2050 or sooner. This is a seven-part series featuring bold actions by cities to accelerate progress toward carbon neutrality, based on CNCA’s Game Changers Report.