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  • September 6, 2019
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Sustainable cities: Three places congestion charging worked

As New York approves the policy, a report makes the case for charges across the US

“Political suicide” was the verdict delivered by Stockholm’s political classes when talk of a congestion charge in the city arose in 2006. Yet it happened — and, what’s more, it’s popular.

Congestion charging, which sees motorists charged when entering set areas of a city, can create trouble. But it often delivers benefits — a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, raised revenues for cities and the desired result: fewer cars.

The National League of Cities (NLC), a US advocacy organisation representing the country’s 19,000 cities, towns and villages, has released a new report exploring the use of congestion charging in London, Stockholm and Singapore to make the case that motorist fees can work in America. New York recently became the first US city to approve a charge.

Here, we walk through the report’s key findings from each of the three key cities.

London

In 2003, before the implementation of a congestion charge, 93% of Londoners said traffic was a problem, expressing concerns about travel time on the roads as well as pollution. Just one year later, following the implementation of a daily £5 charge, average vehicle speeds had increased and congestion had reduced.

In total, despite London’s population growing by 20%, traffic volume decreased by almost 10% between 2000 and 2015, believed to be as a result of the daily fee.

The secret to its success was the program’s flexibility — the charge doubled in price in 10 years and City Hall could extend or reduce its geographical boundary easily. Following the rise of Uber-style transit services and the consequent spike in private hire vehicles, it was decided that taxi cabs (which had previously been exempt) would have to pay from April 2019.

London’s congestion charge was never designed to primarily reduce emissions or increase the funding pot for local infrastructure. Both were bonuses, but not essential: the primary focus was, and remains to be, reducing the number of cars on the roads.

Stockholm

Congestion charging was controversial in Stockholm, and had to be put to a referendum to citizens after an initial trial in 2006. But by 2014, over two thirds of its residents approved of the fee.

Perhaps that’s no wonder. After the charge’s introduction, traffic reduced by almost a quarter. Concerns that the fee would harm the city’s retail industry were unfounded.

In the initial referendum, only the inner city boroughs voted in favour of the plan. But gradually, residents in the outer areas of the city came on board, as they saw investment from the congestion fund being spent in their districts too. Minor road improvements gave the outer reaches of the city confidence that they, too, were being thought of for funding.

The way the government considered citizen participation is a key transferable point: thanks to educational campaigns ran during the piloting and referendum campaign, citizens were ready for the change in motoring costs.

It also helped that results, while not instantaneous, gave quick results. Residents claimed they could see less cars on the streets within the first month of the charge taking hold.

Singapore

Singapore boasts the world’s oldest congestion charge. Beginning in 1975, the city planning scheme was updated in 1998 to provide for advances in tech, with all Singaporean vehicles required to have an in-car unit on the dashboard, which held a smart card containing a pre-pay.

Using the unit, the rate of the fee varies for motorists depending on the time of day, road type and road conditions. The cost varies from $0—$3 per day, so is not prohibitively expensive.

But there is a culture in Singapore of expensive outlays when it comes to driving. Vehicle owners must obtain a certificate to drive, costing between 100-200% of the car’s price tag. These costs naturally lead to fewer road users, who are priced out from upgrading their vehicles.

But it works in terms of traffic flows: inner city traffic has decreased by a quarter, and public transport usage is up.

Singapore’s context, as well as its unusual car tax policy, means it’s more of a one-off case than London or Stockholm. Its unique identity as a city-state means that despite its dense population, it can trial measures easily and react quickly to the release of new tech.

The report just goes to show that sometimes the most basic innovations — like a charge on using a car in a city — can still go a long way to addressing a policy challenge like congestion. Eyes are now on New York as it leads the way on the practice Stateside. — Emma Sisk

(Picture Credit: Allie Lehman/Deathtothestockphoto)

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