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Dethroning The Automobile – Congestion Pricing

August 6, 2012

Cars pass through electronic checkpoint to enter Stockholm at rush hour.
Credit: Derrick Z. Jackson

“For the price of a large cup of coffee, Sweden’s capital turned the typical Monday rush-hour traffic snarl into the equivalent of a calm Saturday stream of cars. Six years after the city imposed a congestion fee on drivers coming into the urban core, the sense of sanity in Stockholm’s streets continues to awe local researchers, environmentalists, and politicians.

Beginning as a seven-month experiment in 2006, Stockholm, a city of 820,000 people in a metropolitan area of 2 million, ringed the perimeter of the city center at 18 entry points with camera gantries. As cars cross into the so-called congestion zone, cameras take pictures of their license plates and automatically charge drivers a fee ranging from about $1.50 at non-peak hours to about $3 at peak.”

That’s from a fascinating article by Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson describing the success of Stockholm’s congestion pricing system for cars, and making a case for Boston to be the first U.S. city to adopt congestion pricing.  Similar systems exist in London, Milan and Singapore, as well as smaller cities like Durham, Riga and Znojmo.

Stockholm began with a seven month trial run in early 2006.  In preparation, the city added park-and-ride lots, bicycle lanes and 200 additional buses to its public transit system.

“Even with the upgrades, public opposition to the fees initially ran as high as 75 percent. On Jan. 2, the day before the trial, the roads were packed. The next morning, rush hour came, and Swedes dropped a collective jaw. Traffic flowed smoothly, with large gaps between many cars. When the trial ended July 31, Stockholm had experienced a 22 percent reduction of traffic. But perhaps more importantly, peak travel times had been slashed.”

Jackson takes note of some of the obstacles congestion pricing in Boston would face.  The heavily indebted MBTA’s buses, trolleys and subways are aging and, in many cases, already operating at full capacity.  Boston business leader Richard Dimino points to the lack of good public transit options in the evening and on weekends as an additional problem.  Former Boston city councillor Paul Scappichio was widely ridiculed when he raised the idea of congestion pricing in 2005.

Jackson then points out several arguments in favor of congestion pricing for Boston*:

  1.  A congestion fee could be used in whole or in part to improve public transportation.  “London, which imposed a stiff $15.50 congestion fee, netted half a billion dollars in the last two years to improve mass transit.”
  2. “A congestion charge system in Boston could also help resolve a major inequity: Interstate 90 already has tolls, but Interstate 93 does not.”  (And, though Jackson doesn’t mention it, commuters driving into Boston from the north pay tolls either at the Tobin bridge or at the Sumner tunnel.)
  3. Congestion acts as a “tax” on other travelers. “Some people say these fees are un-American,” said Boston-based transportation consultant Stephen Fitzroy. “But congestion isn’t very democratic either. Without congestion, a plumber might get an extra $85 job that day, or a working mother would not have to pay a $25 late fee picking up her child at day care.”
  4. Decreasing automobile traffic by as little as 10-15% would, according to Urban Land Institute research Tim Lomax, have a dramatic impact on travel times throughout the Boston metropolitan area.

As Jackson concludes, “There is no need for Bostonians to merely wish for modernization. Stockholm has already shown the way. The only question is if we have the will.”


*Jackson also added his own “first draft” for what a Boston congestion pricing zone might look like, and where the necessary cameras (to record license plates for billing purposes) might be located.


From → City Life, Politics

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