The Report

Does congestion pricing make cities more car-free?

Posting in Cities

By making the cost of driving go up, Sweden's second largest city, Gothenberg, has seen automobile traffic ease, but the plan is not without controversy.

GOTHENBURG, SWEDEN – On our way to the nearest tram stop, my husband and I pass a clay tennis court. Earlier, from the open window of our Airbnb-arranged apartment, I heard the grunting of players and pinging of the ball. As we walk by, I look up and notice a sign showing a hand holding two golden orbs, with a road in the background. My first reaction is that the sign offers some warning about errant balls crossing the road. Days later, as I sit down with University of Gothenburg professors Anna Nagurney and Jonas Floden, I learn that this sign is not about tennis, it's about carbon dioxide.

The two orbs actually represent coins, while the street in the background depicts arterial roads that ring this city of 510,000. The sign tells drivers they are about to pass under a camera that will capture their license plate numbers and charge them anywhere from 8 to 18 Swedish Kroner (roughly $1.25 to $2.79) each time they pass. (The charge applies only to cars registered in Sweden, and only on weekdays, between 6 a.m. and 6:30 p.m.)

The city launched congestion pricing on Jan. 1, after bolstering its bus and other public transit systems to accommodate what city officials expected to be a flood of new riders. The goals are to reduce carbon emissions from transportation, unclog traffic snarls during the morning and afternoon rush hours, and fund major, long-overdue transportation infrastructure projects. By Jan. 10, traffic in the city center had plummeted by 25 percent. In late May, however, traffic was down by less than that: only 14 percent compared to the same time period in 2012.

Not all drivers have abandoned their cars as a result of the congestion pricing, but many have switched to public transit for daily commuting, and others drive into the city outside of enforcement hours, Floden says.

"You can feel it and you can see it," adds Nagurney, referring to the traffic reductions in Gothenburg since the program launched. She is a professor of operational management at the Isenberg School of Management at University of Massachusetts, on sabbatical at the School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg. Floden heads the school's industrial management and logistics group.

"Gothenburg is continuing to grow, and cars are a major source of carbon emissions," Floden says.

The congestion pricing program sits aside the city's other programs to reduce air pollution. The Port of Gothenburg aims to become carbon-neutral by 2015, through a number of incentive programs such as paying shipping companies that use clean fuel. The city's transit system also plans to start testing electric buses made by hometown manufacturer Volvo.

The congestion pricing program's short-term intent is to raise funds for a large infrastructure project designed to improve public transit and regional train service. When I ask a young, fresh-faced greeter at the city's transit information center if the system was set up so drivers are paying for the transit improvements, while transit users will gain all the benefits -- more trains, shorter trips, fewer transfers, a new central station -- without having to pay anything extra, she responds, "Yes, of course."

"We need to get people to stop driving, or at least driving during busy hours," she says, matter-of-factly. "And we need new infrastructure."

Actually, the national government is footing half of the construction bills, but the rest must come from Gothenburg. Not all locals are happy with the high cost of driving as a result; a referendum has been introduced to reverse the congestion-pricing scheme. But even if the legislation gets enough votes to pass, Floden does not see how the city could actually halt the program, because ground is already being broken and the money already being spent.

Gothenburg is the third fourth European city to launch congestion pricing, following London, Stockholm and Milan. Its structure is patterned after Stockholm's system, which has cut vehicular traffic in that city by 20 percent, while boosting use of public transit during peak hours by an impressive 78 percent.

A Gothenburg tram shelter, amid low traffic.

Some Asian cities are considering congestion pricing, and some prohibit drivers from driving every day -- to cut down on congestion and smog, they're beholden to enter roads on alternating days. Due to horrible air quality, the Chinese city of Shijiazhuang will enact a lottery to allow car ownership to just a portion of its citizens. Singapore also uses congestion pricing, but in a cruel twist, it is still seeing record-breaking air pollution, which is blamed on farmers burning fields in neighboring Sumatra.

A number of U.S. cities, including New York and San Francisco, have considered congestion pricing, but thus far have lacked the wide support to introduce it. With cameras that can quickly read license plates, the infrastructure to deploy congestion pricing is pretty simple and the pay-off, as Stockholm has shown, can be significant. Nagurney, for one, is somewhat optimistic that American cities will come around. "I think it might happen," she says.

(Images: Top by mikecogh/Flickr; others by Mary Catherine O'Connor)

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure