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March 25, 2019

Less pollution and better transit: Congestion pricing a big success in other world-class cities

March 17, 2019
A sign informing motorists that they are entering the Congestion Charge zone on March 16, 2009 in London. (Oli Scarff / Getty Images)

While New Yorkers clamor over the prospect of congestion pricing in Manhattan, officials in cities that have already implemented similar car-taxing programs are rolling their eyes.

Stockholm, London and Singapore are among the cities that have used some form of congestion pricing for years, and advocates and experts regularly point to those locales while they push lawmakers in Albany to approve a similar program in New York City.

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“They’re all successful, both at reducing traffic and raising revenue.” transportation consultant Bruce Schaller said of the programs in the three cities. “They’ve worked, and, most notably, won wide public support even though they were initially very unpopular.”

Stockholm serves as a prime example of that shift in public opinion. The city’s congestion pricing program was initially implemented by Sweden’s federal government, and many residents there saw it as a cash grab by politicians.

“People were saying ‘It won’t work,’ ‘It’s an unfair burden on the poor,’ asking ‘What do you do if you have a small business,’ ‘It’s the national government taking over,'” said Jonas Eliason, Stockholm’s traffic director, who orchestrated the launch of the program and is one of the world’s leading experts on the issue.

The Swedish capital put in place a seven-month trial for congestion pricing in 2006. Before it was launched, Eliason said it mustered just 35% of the public’s support.

“When people saw that traffic was really, really reduced, public opinion changed,” Eliason said.

After the trial, the city held a non-binding referendum in which 53% of voters stood behind the program.

Lawmakers made congestion pricing permanent in Stockholm the following year, and tied its funding to a major infrastructure package — a pitch that is familiar to New Yorkers.

“We had to make the point clear that we’re introducing charges not because we hate cars,” said Eliason. “We do it because we want to improve the transportation system.”

Money from Stockholm’s congestion pricing plan has bought hundreds of new buses, expanded bike infrastructure, and has even built a new subway line.

It’s helped the city’s environment as well. By 2013, traffic in Stockholm’s city center fell by 20% and airborne pollution was down more than 10%, according to a study by Eliason.

The price of entering Stockholm’s congestion zone varies by time of day, and the fees are in place only on weekdays from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

London was ahead of the curve when it came to congestion pricing — its program launched in 2003. London’s population is similar to New York’s, and offers a good example of how congestion pricing might work in Manhattan.

The city charges about $15 to enter its congestion zone, which is similar in size to the one proposed for New York. The zone is only in effect from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays.

“It’s kind of accepted by most people in London now,” said Paul Cowperthwaite, who oversees the program. “They recognize the scheme and the benefits it delivers.”

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Those benefits include a revamped, reliable bus system and expanded funding for the London Underground, which at this point puts New York City’s subway to shame. Roughly $2.66 billion has been invested in Transport for London since congestion pricing was introduced.

Cowperthwaite said that for congestion pricing to be approved and to succeed, New York politicians must be straightforward with voters about how it will work, and how it will benefit commuters.

“You need to be clear on the objectives of the scheme,” he said. “I think what’s always helped us in London is the revenue we raised is invested back into transit.”

Singapore appears to have the most technologically advanced congestion pricing system.

The Asian city-state’s system requires drivers to have an E-ZPass-type transponder in their cars. Prices constantly shift based on the volume of traffic. Where traffic is heaviest, motorists pay more.

“I don’t think that variable system they’ve imposed would be palatable here in New York because of privacy concerns,” said Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

Both London and Stockholm’s systems leverage technology that automatically reads license plates and issues bills to drivers.

New York’s toll bridges and tunnels also have a plate-reading system, but it’s a backup to charge drivers without E-ZPasses — which are used by 90% of drivers.

Regardless of how congestion pricing shakes out in New York, Eliason said it’s important for motorists to believe that taxing cars for driving in congested areas is on a par with other traffic rules.

“You’ll not entirely love it,” he said. “But you’ll accept it like you accept traffic lights and speed limits. They slow you down a little bit, but you understand why you need them.”

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