Congestion charges – the road to sustainable mobility in the EU?

As 771 European cities prepare to launch the 2006 European Mobility week, Stockholm’s inhabitants must vote on a system of road tolls aimed at reducing traffic in the city centre.

With around 80% of European citizens living in urban areas, simply getting from one place to another is becoming an ordeal because cars are causing so much congestion. In some towns, the average driving speed during rush hour is slower than horse-and-cart days. 

Increased car use is also accompanied by safety, health and environmental problems. For instance, air pollution is at the root of an increasing number of respiratory problems such as asthma, with an estimated 300,000 people dying prematurely each year from air pollution related diseases. 

To counter this evolution, a number of European cities have taken the initiative to develop traffic-control systems, in order to encourage a modal shift from private to public transport. 

After Rome, London, Edinburgh and Oslo, Stockholm is the latest city to test a traffic-management system. The difference in Sweden is that, rather than imposing new measures as was done in 2003 in London, Stockholm will actually allow its citizens to vote on the matter in a referendum, which will take place on 17 September 2006, following a seven-month trial period. 

During the trial, drivers were charged between €1 and €2.10, according to the time of the day, each time they entered exited the city centre congestion zone on weekdays between 6:30 am and 6:29 pm – up to a maximum fee of €6.5 per day. Some vehicles were exempt, including taxis, motorcycles and environmentally-friendly cars such as hybrid or ethanol-fuelled cars. As in London, cars did not have to stop when crossing the cordon as the system was controlled via cameras located at toll points that photograph cars’ license plates. 

The aim was to reduce traffic by 10-15% and provide more resources for public transport. Despite polls showing that around 70% of Stockholm’s inhabitants opposed the congestion charges, Sweden’s Social-Democrat-led government went ahead with the trial as of 1 January 2006 after it was approved by the national parliament. The trial period ended on 31 July 2006 and, according to a final report from Stockholm’s city congestion charge department, the effects on the traffic over the period were much bigger than expected: 

  • Traffic passing over the congestion zone boundaries decreased by nearly a quarter (22%); 
  • Traffic accidents involving injuries fell by 5-10%; 
  • Carbon dioxide emissions were reduced by 14% in the inner city and by 2-3% overall in Stockholm County, just as a result of this one policy, and; 
  • Public transport use increased by about 6% (although around 1.5% of that is credited to higher fuel prices during the period). 

Furthermore, as people started experiencing all these effects directly, opposition to introducing the congestion charge on a permanent basis waned. Latest polls show that over 50% of Stockholmers plan to vote in favour of the fees in the 17 September referendum. 

The result of the referendum could influence the pick-up of such traffic-control systems in other European cities. 

If Stockholm’s residents vote in favour of the plan, it would show leaders that citizens actually support such measures. But, if they vote against the plan, it could set back efforts to introduce congestion charging elsewhere. Indeed, Sweden’s citizens are largely environmentally-friendly and the country has a good public transport system. If congestion pricing isn’t accepted there, it is unlikely it will be accepted in other countries. 

Barbara Helfferich, spokeswoman for Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas, explained that the the Commission fully supports Stockholm and other cities in their various endeavours to address climate change - be it via reducing speed on roads, improving public transport systems or with what she termed "environmental charging". "The proof is in the pudding... and we can see that [road pricing] really is working," she said.

Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson said in a pre-electoral speech: “I do want congestion charges in Stockholm – there are too many cars.” 

But centre-right opposition leader Fredrik Reinfeldt said he believes the charges will hurt Sweden’s economy. “I will vote no,” he said, adding: “I think user fees are part of the solution to congestion problems, but the Social Democrats in Stackholm have handled this trial really badly.” 

According to Rickard Wessman, spokesman for the Stockholm Moderate party (one of the four parties which make up the centre-right opposition), Stockhom’s main congestion problem is that it is lacking ring roads. “Building such roads would pretty much resolve the city’s traffic problems,” he said. 

The International Association of Public Transport (UITP)  supports congestion charging as “an efficient mean to limit individual transportation and its negative effects”. UITP Secretary General Hans Rat explains: "In congested areas, the individual car-user simply does not meet the full costs of his travel. The economy as a whole, citizens' quality of life and the environment all suffer the consequences of our choking cities… In fact the cost of congestion in Europe is estimated at up to €63 billion per year." Congestion charging, he said, can "make car-users realise what kind of costs they are creating, and make them pay a bit to cover that cost. The revenue generated can be used to provide them with better public transport." 

From 16 to 22 September 2006, European citizens will have the opportunity to enjoy a full week of events dedicated to sustainable mobility. The Car Free Day will be the highlight of the Week. 

After the World Meteorological Organisation named the year 2005 "Year of Disasters", climate change has been chosen as the central theme for the 2006 edition of the Mobility Week. 

The objective is to raise awareness, at national, regional and local levels, on the necessity for changes in behaviour in relation to mobility and, in particular, in relation to the use of the private car. 

The week also aims to initiate a longer-term debate on how urban life can become more sustainable. 

According to the official website, so far 771 cities are taking part in the European Mobility Week and 1,019 in the International Car Free day. 

  • 16-22 September 2006: European Mobility Week
  • 17 September 2006: Stockholm referendum on congestion-charging and Swedish national elections
  • Early 2007: The Commission is set to propose a Green Paper on Urban Transport

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