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Comparative Domestic Policy Program

Policy Brief
September 28, 2009

Summary: John Swanson is a senior Gaining Public Support for Congestion Charging:
transportation planner responsible
for public involvement at the Trans- Lessons from Europe for U.S. Metropolitan Areas
portation Planning Board of the
Metropolitan Washington Council of
Governments, a regional planning by John Swanson1
agency comprising jurisdictions in
the District of Columbia, Northern
Virginia, and Suburban Maryland. INTRODUCTION such as rush hour—is a form of road pric-
ing that leaders in a number of European
In the fall of 2008, the author Since World War II, planners and decision- urban areas have considered in recent years.
makers across Europe have pursued bold However, persuading the traveling public to
was awarded a GMF fellowship by
policies to discourage driving and increase pay for an activity that has long been
the Comparative Domestic Policy
the use of public transit. These measures perceived to be free is a considerable
Program. Through his fellowship,
include a variety of “carrots” to lure people challenge. Not surprisingly then, attempts
Mr. Swanson traveled to European out of their cars, and “sticks,” such as fuel to implement such schemes have had
metropolitan regions including taxes and parking policies, that make driv- varying levels of success. On this side of
London, Manchester, Stockholm, ing less attractive. More recently, planners the Atlantic, a congestion charge proposal
and Copenhagen to examine how have increasingly considered road pricing for New York was shelved in 2007 due to
decision-makers and planners as a disincentive to driving, although as a opposition in the state legislature. In
in these regions have attempted policy option, pricing has been particularly the United Kingdom, voters defeated
to explain to the public proposed challenging to implement. congestion charges proposals in Edinburgh
solutions to the challenges of urban in 2005 and in Manchester in 2008. On
sprawl and increased automobile As a fellow of GMF’s Comparative the other hand, officials and advocates in
dependence. This policy paper Domestic Policy Program in 2008 and 2009, both London and Stockholm succeeded in
I investigated how a number of European persuading sufficient numbers to support
focuses on congestion charging,
metropolitan regions have chosen from congestion charges in their urban centers.
a solution that shows promise in
among these options, explained them
discouraging driving while generat-
(or failed to explain them) to the public, I visited Stockholm, London, and
ing public revenue and increasing and integrated them into long-range Manchester as a GMF fellow in 2008 and
efficiency in travel behavior, but has transportation and land-use plans. 2009. Through this research, I discovered a
proven particularly challenging to Because I was particularly interested in variety of methods that helped build public
implement. the implementation of bold policies, my support for what remains a radical and
research focused on road pricing, which often controversial policy. I also discussed
I believe represents a “new frontier” in mistakes and weaknesses that made conges-
transportation policy and planning. tion charging politically unpalatable in
places like Manchester. This brief
Congestion charging—charging a fee to summarizes the lessons learned in each of
those driving in congested areas, such as those cities.
1744 R Street NW an urban core, and/or at congested times,
Washington, DC 20009 1
John Swanson, a fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) from November 2008 to February 2009, and a
T 1 202 683 2650 senior transportation planner responsible for public involvement at the Transportation Planning Board of the Metropolitan Washing-
ton Council of Governments, a regional planning agency comprising jurisdictions in the District of Columbia, Northern Virginia, and
F 1 202 265 1662
Suburban Maryland. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of GMF.
Comparative Domestic Policy Program

Policy Brief
CASE STUDY SUMMARIES zone. This extension proved unpopular, however, and was prob-
ably one factor that contributed to Livingstone’s electoral defeat
London in 2008.

In 2000, two major changes in the governance of London oc- Stockholm

curred: the office of Greater London Mayor was created for the
first time in history and a metropolitan governing structure, Sweden’s capital region is growing rapidly, at rates similar to
which had been disbanded in 1986, was restored in the form of Washington, DC. The city currently has a population of 800,000,
the Greater London Authority (GLA). Prior to these changes, while the metropolitan region (encompassing the same geographic
London’s 32 boroughs had no overarching governing structure. area as Stockholm County or Stockholms län), has approximately
Thus, coordination of day-to-day operations, including trans- two million. In the coming decades, the region’s population is
portation, was left to ad hoc or single-purpose bodies. Long- expected grow more than one percent per year, adding approxi-
range planning was largely ignored. The new governing structure mately 500,000 residents by 2030. Like Washington and London,
has spawned a rebirth in metropolitan planning and has made employment in Stockholm is anticipated to grow more rapidly
possible innovations like congestion charging. than population, requiring more people who work in the region to
live outside the region. As people live farther out and become more
Ken Livingstone, left-wing firebrand and city leader in the 1980s, affluent, automobile travel is expected to increase. Forty percent
was elected Greater London’s first mayor. He quickly got to work of trips in the region are currently made by private auto. That
developing metropolitan planning policies to respond to the number is expected to increase to 48 percent in 2030, given current
pressures of growth and to fix the disrepair of London’s public trends.
transportation infrastructure. Livingstone’s administration also
prepared for long-term improvements. London’s long-range The Stockholm regional plan—adopted in 2003 and currently
transportation plan, Transport 2025, calls for a range of ambi- under revision—acknowledges that the metropolitan core
tious improvements that would provide a 40 percent increase cannot handle all the forecast growth, so the region is promoting
in public transit capacity. Under the plan, the mode share for the development of seven satellite “cores” that already are relatively
driving will go down—from 41 to 32 percent. And even more dense. This plan, known as the RUFS (Regional utvecklingsplan
significantly, under the plan, the absolute number of car trips för Stockholmsregionen), envisions these satellite cores as true self-
would decrease—from 11 to 10 million per day. sustaining communities, where a person can reasonably expect to
live, work, learn, and play. The regional plan also includes exten-
The congestion charge was implemented in 2003 as part of sive new public transit—and a new bypass highway.
Livingstone’s wider vision for Greater London. The system uses a
relatively simple approach. All chargeable vehicles (some vehicles To deal with the “demand side” of the transportation challenge, in
are exempt, such as buses, taxis, ambulances and motorcycles) 2007, congestion charging was implemented in Stockholm’s met-
must pay a daily fee of £8 (approximately $12) when entering or ropolitan core. The background to this move is political and dates
traveling within the zone. The charge is in effect between 7 a.m. back to 2002. Following that year’s elections, the Social Democrats
and 6 p.m., Monday to Friday. The system is enforced through needed the support of the Green Party to form governments at the
closed circuit TV and automatic license plate recognition national level and in the county and city of Stockholm. As a condi-
systems. Fines of between £60 and £180 ($90-$270) are imposed tion for their support, the Greens insisted on a congestion charge
for non-payment. program in Stockholm’s core.

Traffic in central London went down 20 percent and conges- Congestion charging is in itself quite unusual, but what makes
tion dropped about 30 percent in the charge zone immedi- the Stockholm story truly unique is the way in which it was
ately following implementation of the congestion charge. The established: The congestion charge system was implemented on
charge was also quite lucrative for public coffers. In financial a trial basis for seven months from January to July of 2006—and
year 2007/2008, it was estimated to have raised £137 million only after that trial was completed did Stockholm residents have a
(approximately $220 million) in net revenues. Riding a tide of chance to vote on it in a referendum, which was narrowly
success, Livingstone was reelected in 2004. In 2007, he expanded approved.
the charge to western parts of London, doubling the size of the

Comparative Domestic Policy Program

Policy Brief
Vehicles are charged a fee whenever they enter or exit Stockholm’s Moreover, from the beginning, the commitment of Manchester’s
charge area. The charge is made through cameras automatically leadership to road pricing seems to have been lukewarm. It
photographing license plates (transponders were used during the seems the motivation for pursuing this policy had less to do with
trial period, but were later abandoned). The charge per passage is tackling traffic congestion in the city center, or even reducing car
between $1.30 and $2.60 (10-20 Swedish kronor)—relatively cheap use more generally, than with leveraging funding from a central
for a country as pricey as Sweden. The maximum charge is about source in order to help pay for other transportation projects.
$10 (60 kronor) per day. Unlike London, which has just one rate, Originally, regional leaders had not planned to hold a referendum
the fees in Stockholm are higher during rush hours. They are not, on the TIF bid, however, after they failed to get agreement on the
however, adjusted according to traffic volumes. Certain vehicles package among local authorities in Greater Manchester, they got
are exempted, including “environmental cars” (alternative energy were backed into it. This lack of commitment to both the
vehicles), vehicles for disabled people, motorcycles and emergency concept of road pricing and a public plebiscite on the issue may
vehicles. The exemption for “environmental cars” will be phased have doomed it from the start.
out in 2010.
Following implementation in 2007, traffic to and from the inner
city was reduced by 20-25 percent. This success is reflected in solid Certain key themes emerged in my interviews that are essential
public support. Policy makers, planners, and the public have largely for understanding how congestion charge systems in Stockholm
accepted the necessity of road pricing in achieving a sustainable and London gained public support. The failure in Manchester
transportation vision, although some observers are skeptical about to convince voters of the benefits of congestion charging also
the role of the current congestion charge in achieving the goals of produced important lessons. All three cases illustrate that it is
that vision. In particular, there is concern that the revenues from essential to earn the public’s trust by communicating a simple,
the congestion charge are currently dedicated to building a high- clear vision that addresses a problem the public can see and
way bypass, which could in turn have a contrary effect by understand.
encouraging more driving and more auto-dependent land
development. 1. Define the Problem

Manchester If the public are to be persuaded that congestion charging is

necessary, it is essential to clearly define and articulate the prob-
In December 2008, nearly 80 percent of voters in Greater lem that the scheme is designed to address. Congestion was a
Manchester rejected a referendum to implement a congestion recognized problem in London and Stockholm. Leaders in those
charge in the center of the city. The Manchester referendum cities did not need to waste time convincing the public of that
would have leveraged up to £3 billion ($4.8 billion) for fact. Other long-term challenges facing those cities were also
transportation improvements in Greater Manchester. Half clearly articulated and understood. Short-term transit improve-
that funding (£1.5 billion) would have been provided from the ments were needed (desperately needed, in London’s case) and
central government’s Transport Innovation Fund (TIF). The on a longer-term basis, more transit capacity is required. Those
remainder of the new funds would have been raised through the plans are in place and moving forward.
congestion charge and increased revenues from public transit.
In contrast, observers of Manchester’s defeated congestion
The Labour government of Tony Blair set up the TIF in 2004, as charge referendum told me that the clear purpose for congestion
a national transportation funding mechanism to encourage pro- charging was not so obvious. Congestion was not a significant
grams that manage transportation demand, particularly through problem in Manchester, certainly in comparison with London, so
congestion pricing. As a condition for receiving TIF funds, the the solution seemed unnecessary. The experience in Manchester
government required Manchester to implement a congestion suggests that using congestion charging as a method of reducing
charge. This requirement stirred resentment among Manchester car use in an urban area may not always be the most appropri-
voters, even among those who were inclined to support road ate policy. The lesson here appears to be that local circumstances
pricing. must be fully taken into account before seeking to use such a
radical, and potentially controversial, policy instrument.

Comparative Domestic Policy Program

Policy Brief
2. Explain the Solution Investing in public transportation

A high level of investment plus a clear, simple message regard- In both London and Stockholm, congestion charging was
ing the role of congestion charging in the wider transportation accompanied by massive improvements in public transit. In
plan for the area is vital to winning public support. Both London London, the transit system, perceived to be in chaos, was trans-
and Stockholm invested heavily in information campaigns to formed. In particular, the bus system was overhauled. Prior to
prepare citizens for the congestion charges and to help them the implementation of the congestion charge, bus capacity in
understand how the new policies would work. In Stockholm, Central London was increased by 24 percent on affected routes.
the trial included $26 million in funding for public informa- For the Western Extension of the congestion charge, bus capacity
tion and evaluation. This expense was incurred to be sure the was increased by 26 percent in the proposed new zone. Depend-
trial was implemented effectively; if it failed, it would do so on ing on how costs are calculated, the “complementary capacity”
its own merits, not because Swedish public administration was for both schemes carried a price tag of between £30 million and
incompetent. £40 million ($50-65 million). In Stockholm, almost $170 million
was spent on new public transit during the congestion charge
Longer-term education is also important. London’s transporta- trial period. Like London the expenditures mostly took the form
tion system invests in awareness-building programs, including of new buses and new express bus services. The focus in both
the London Transport Museum and the tradition of posters cities on investment in buses is no coincidence—buses were
advertizing the Tube. These broader efforts help build public clearly the only way to quickly meet anticipated needs. These
understanding and support for the transportation system as an improvements have been well-received and have largely become
integral part of the cultural and economic identity of the metro- permanent.
politan region. In both cities, congestion charging was part of a
broader strategy to improve transportation in the region. A final important point is that a great deal of this investment
was made before the congestion charge was introduced or made
The Manchester project, on the other hand, was characterized permanent—thus providing the public with the “upside” of
by a complicated message. The long-term public transportation congestion charging before implementing the “downside” of the
strategy proved difficult to explain. According to Roy Newton at charge itself.
the Joint Transportation Policy Team, “Very few people got the
message that a significant investment in public transport was Dedicating revenues to transportation
the major component, and even fewer people knew that pub-
lic transport investments would have to be fully implemented A related factor in the success of the congestion charge in
before the congestion charge would begin.” London is the reinvestment of all revenues in public transport.
By law, all net revenues—estimated in 2008 at $220 million per
Based on the lessons of London, Stockholm and Manchester it year—are dedicated to improving public transit, with 80 percent
appears that voters can only be convinced of the merits of the currently dedicated to bus improvements. Thus, the public as-
policy if it is seen as part of a wider long-term plan to improve sociate the charge directly with the improvements they witness
transportation. An effective public information campaign that in public transportation.
articulates such a plan is therefore crucial.
Revenues from Stockholm’s congestion charge are also dedicated
3. Show the Benefits to transportation, although since the election of a moderate
government in 2006, the funds largely have been used for road
The public shouldn’t be expected to simply accept radical change investments. Despite this redirection of revenues, public
without experiencing the benefits. Demonstrating to the public support for the congestion charge has not changed and accord-
that the new charge will lead directly to tangible transporta- ing to some research, public backing has actually increased.
tion-related benefits is a pivotal aspect of gaining support for Stockholm city planner Daniel Firth, told me that in order for
the scheme. A number of methods were used in London and a congestion charge to be accepted, he believes the public must
Stockholm to achieve this: see it as “part of an overall package to improve transport in the

Comparative Domestic Policy Program

Policy Brief
but whether the revenues have to be dedicated only to public 4. Demonstrate Leadership, Earn the Public’s Trust
transport in order to gain support is not as clear, at least in
Stockholm.” The underlying theme that emerged throughout my inter-
views was the importance of cultivating and maintaining the
Trial period public’s trust in the ability of leaders to act efficiently and
with integrity. Trust is difficult (and sometimes expensive)
Stockholm took the “show me” approach a step further by to build, but easy to lose.
actually conducting a trial of the congestion charge. The
trial lasted seven months and was not cheap, a total of $435 In Stockholm, the congestion trial was constructed to
million was expended. Stockholm’s transit system was very confirm citizens’ belief in the ability of the public sector to
keen to prove that it would be up to the challenge of a rider- implement something complicated. The referendum was in a
ship spike. (As mentioned earlier, $170 million of this total sense a vote on the competence of public administration. So,
was used for new bus capacity; $235 million was needed the trust of voters was earned in a very direct manner by al-
for the equipment and the cost of one year of operation of lowing them to experience congestion charging before asking
the charge itself.) This high cost reflected an extra level of for their backing. In London, trust was gained in a different
redundancy and other precautions that project sponsors be- manner. The new metropolitan government, including the
lieved were necessary because there was relatively little time first-ever elected mayor, rebuilt and refocused the public’s
to “get it right.” A combination of the trial and the heavy belief in the ability of the city administration to get things
investment in public transit helped dispel public skepticism done. After years of ad hoc
about whether pricing would have a positive effect, and led planning and decision making, the public was willing to
to support in a referendum for making the charge perma- invest its trust in a new institution—and, crucially, a popular
nent. new Mayor. The “honeymoon” period that followed the elec-
tions for the new GLA provided an opportunity for decision-
Encouraging walking and cycling makers to push forward with a bold policy that simply would
not have been possible in a less politically favorable climate.
A number of European cities are following policies of
gradually converting road space from vehicle use to pedestri- The common thread between the two cities is that leaders
an/bike use—a strategy that congestion charging can com- in London and Stockholm were ready to quickly move
plement. London planners, for example, took advantage of forward when opportunities presented themselves. Yes, the
the 20 percent drop in traffic following the implementation stars aligned to make congestion charging possible in both
of the congestion charge to reduce road space throughout London and Stockholm, but it is important to note that a lot
the city, and implement a host of other pedestrian improve- of people —NGO leaders, citizens, academics, and politi-
ments across the city. For example, Trafalgar Square, once cians—had been preparing for years for the right moment.
an inhospitable traffic circle, is now a pedestrianized public
space. In contrast, in Manchester, I was told the public was skepti-
cal that leaders would follow through on the commitments
In terms of “showing the benefits,” Manchester again pro- of the package. In particular, people assumed congestion fees
vides a valuable contrast to the success in the other two would be increased in the future, and that the promised pub-
cities. In my interviews I was told there was a distinct lack of lic transit improvements would not materialize. One source
excitement in the proposed improvements associated with of this mistrust was the distinctly lukewarm commitment of
the charge. Importantly, a new light rail line was already the region’s leadership to road pricing. If leaders themselves
funded and scheduled for construction regardless of whether lack conviction in congestion charging, it is surely too much
the referendum passed. Observers said a key factor in the to ask the general public to give it their backing.
referendum’s defeat was the lack of a major symbolic trans-
portation project associated with the congestion charge.

Comparative Domestic Policy Program

Policy Brief
About CDP
The research I undertook in London and Stockholm illuminated
a number of policy initiatives that have contributed to gaining At the turn of the 21st century, metropolitan regions are home to
public support for congestion charging initiatives—which, as nearly three quarters of the population of the United States and
the case of Manchester demonstrates, is no easy feat. The under- Europe and are projected to continue growing. The major economic,
lying story in both London and Stockholm, however, is the role environmental and social transformations shaping these nations over
of “vision” in advancing large-scale change. In using the term the next century, as well as the severe economic crisis facing them
“vision,” I am not referring to a single document or plan with today, will necessarily play out in urban contexts. Thus, the
a mission statement and lofty goals. Rather, I have come to metropolitan built environment, its impact on the natural
see a vision as something much bigger. It is an underlying environment, and the resources available to citizens will be crucial
consensus that is shared between leaders and the public. It is for successfully meeting the complex challenges facing the
widely understood, even if it is not always articulated. And in transatlantic community.
some way, a vision must be “visual.”
While cities in the United States and Europe face similar policy
challenges in related post-industrial contexts, individual
Metropolitan regions like Stockholm and London have culti-
communities that attempt to implement creative strategies have
vated and leveraged their existing “transportation cultures” as
limited opportunities to learn from one another’s experiences.
the basis for change. Planners, political leaders and citizens have
Recognizing the necessity for communities to collaborate in crafting
asked: “How do we, as a metropolitan community, see our travel
approaches to local problems that have global implications, GMF’s
patterns as a reflection of our way of life? And how do we want
Comparative Domestic Policy (CDP) Program provides a framework
to see ourselves, in our daily travel, 20 years from now?”
for dialogue between individuals who make, influence, and
implement urban and regional policy on both sides of the Atlantic.
I believe that the Washington metropolitan region has such a
At the core of the CDP program is the Transatlantic Cities Network,
“transportation culture” that is ready to be articulated and
a durable structure for ongoing exchange among a select group of
enhanced as a regional vision. Our past successes include a
civic leaders representing 25 cities in the United States and Europe.
remarkable heavy-rail Metro system and a history of transit-
oriented development. In the future, we need to develop and
celebrate diverse systems of transportation that will serve the About GMF
spectrum of needs throughout our region. Such new systems will
include light rail, enhanced bus service, and more opportunities The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a
for walking and bicycling. Road pricing can play a major role in nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution
this vision by providing new opportunities for transit, particularly dedicated to promoting greater cooperation and understanding
priority bus service using congestion-free lanes, to further connect between North America and Europe. GMF does this by supporting
our communities. individuals and institutions working on transatlantic issues, by
convening leaders to discuss the most pressing transatlantic themes,
The fragmentation of our political structures in the Washington and by examining ways in which transatlantic cooperation can
region almost inevitably means that decision making will always address a variety of global policy challenges. In addition, GMF
be incremental. We are unlikely to have a metropolitan mayor, supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded
like London, any time soon. And this fact alone argues for the in 1972 through a gift from Germany on the 25th anniversary of the
need to articulate and instill a common sense of vision across Marshall Plan as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance,
our region. GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In
addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven
offices in Europe: Berlin, Bratislava, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara,
and Bucharest.