Paying for passage
With a population much the same as Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland’s, the Swedish capital first trialled congestion charging in 2006. Ringed with charging cordons, motorists pay between NZD$2.29 - $6.86 to travel into Stockholm’s central business district – capped at $20.58 a day.
In 2013, Gothenburg used legislation already in place from Stockholm’s rollout to introduce its own congestion charging scheme. The city of 500,000 people is similar in area to Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington. Its congestion charge is much lower – ranging from NZD$1.50 to $3.50 per trip - capped at $10.
In both cities, there’s no charge during the July summer holiday period. The only major pricing difference is that Gothenburg has a multi-passage exemption – meaning motorists can pass as many charging cordons as they like in one hour and only pay once.
A report from the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute found that when congestion charging was introduced, the effect was immediate. In Stockholm, traffic volumes fell by 20 percent. Gothenburg saw a 12 percent reduction, with commuters in both cities switching to public transport and benefiting from drops in queue and travel times.
There have also been environmental benefits. Estimates show that carbon emissions in Stockholm and Gothenburg reduced by 3 percent. This may seem like a small number but, for a single measure, is not to be sneezed at. Nitrogen oxide emissions from cars and trucks – a major contributor to air pollution - fell by around 8 percent.
Expect initial public opposition
Before Stockholm’s 2006 trial, the public were against having to pay to drive into the city. But with a significant decrease in traffic volume during the trial, people quickly began to see the benefits. Travel times improved and queues decreased. People travelling on buses also benefited from less time sitting in traffic.
After Stockholm’s trial, a referendum was held asking if people wanted congestion charging made permanent. The ‘yes’ vote won. In contrast, after being introduced in Gothenburg, a non-binding referendum was held. The answer was ‘no,’ but local politicians forged ahead anyway.
Today, most road users in Sweden accept the congestion charging schemes.
Revenues are a means to an end
In Stockholm, congestion revenues were initially used to pay for road improvements in and around the city. They’re now used to fund new public transport infrastructure, including an extension of the metro system. It’s the same story in Gothenburg, with one of its original objectives to raise 14 billion krona ($2.1 billion NZD) for infrastructure investments over 25 years - including a rail tunnel under the city to benefit commuters travelling into the city from surrounding municipalities.
Geography informs design
When it comes to designing a congestion charging scheme, geography matters. Stockholm, for instance, is built on fourteen islands. To get anywhere you drive over bridges, which, before the congestion charge, acted as traffic choke points.
Transport planners were able to take advantage of Stockholm’s natural water barriers when deciding where to locate charging cordons. The same approach wasn’t possible in Gothenburg, which is bisected by the Göta älv River and has over twice the land area of the Swedish capital.
Test, learn and adapt
There’s been some changes to congestion charging in Stockholm and Gothenburg over the years. In Stockholm, low emissions vehicles were initially exempt but are now included. In 2016, the city’s network of charging cordons was extended to include motorways. Charges have been hiked twice – in 2016 and 2020.
What we can learn from the Swedish experience is that congestion charges, while not initially popular, are effective in meeting their objectives and come to be accepted by the public - not just as a way of reducing congestion, but in fighting climate change, financing new infrastructure and reducing local air pollution. The big question for Aotearoa now is just where, when and how do we go ahead and break our gridlock?