Comparative Domestic Policy Program

September 28, 2009
Summary: John Swanson is a senior transportation planner responsible for public involvement at the Transportation Planning Board of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, a regional planning agency comprising jurisdictions in the District of Columbia, Northern Virginia, and Suburban Maryland. In the fall of 2008, the author was awarded a GMF fellowship by the Comparative Domestic Policy Program. Through his fellowship, Mr. Swanson traveled to European metropolitan regions including London, Manchester, Stockholm, and Copenhagen to examine how decision-makers and planners in these regions have attempted to explain to the public proposed solutions to the challenges of urban sprawl and increased automobile dependence. This policy paper focuses on congestion charging, a solution that shows promise in discouraging driving while generating public revenue and increasing efficiency in travel behavior, but has proven particularly challenging to implement.

Policy Brief

Gaining Public Support for Congestion Charging: Lessons from Europe for U.S. Metropolitan Areas
by John Swanson1
INTRODUCTION Since World War II, planners and decisionmakers across Europe have pursued bold policies to discourage driving and increase the use of public transit. These measures include a variety of “carrots” to lure people out of their cars, and “sticks,” such as fuel taxes and parking policies, that make driving less attractive. More recently, planners have increasingly considered road pricing as a disincentive to driving, although as a policy option, pricing has been particularly challenging to implement. As a fellow of GMF’s Comparative Domestic Policy Program in 2008 and 2009, I investigated how a number of European metropolitan regions have chosen from among these options, explained them (or failed to explain them) to the public, and integrated them into long-range transportation and land-use plans. Because I was particularly interested in the implementation of bold policies, my research focused on road pricing, which I believe represents a “new frontier” in transportation policy and planning. Congestion charging—charging a fee to those driving in congested areas, such as an urban core, and/or at congested times,
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such as rush hour—is a form of road pricing that leaders in a number of European urban areas have considered in recent years. However, persuading the traveling public to pay for an activity that has long been perceived to be free is a considerable challenge. Not surprisingly then, attempts to implement such schemes have had varying levels of success. On this side of the Atlantic, a congestion charge proposal for New York was shelved in 2007 due to opposition in the state legislature. In the United Kingdom, voters defeated congestion charges proposals in Edinburgh in 2005 and in Manchester in 2008. On the other hand, officials and advocates in both London and Stockholm succeeded in persuading sufficient numbers to support congestion charges in their urban centers. I visited Stockholm, London, and Manchester as a GMF fellow in 2008 and 2009. Through this research, I discovered a variety of methods that helped build public support for what remains a radical and often controversial policy. I also discussed mistakes and weaknesses that made congestion charging politically unpalatable in places like Manchester. This brief summarizes the lessons learned in each of those cities.

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John Swanson, a fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) from November 2008 to February 2009, and a senior transportation planner responsible for public involvement at the Transportation Planning Board of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, a regional planning agency comprising jurisdictions in the District of Columbia, Northern Virginia, and 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 London In 2000, two major changes in the governance of London occurred: the office of Greater London Mayor was created for the first time in history and a metropolitan governing structure, which had been disbanded in 1986, was restored in the form of the Greater London Authority (GLA). Prior to these changes, London’s 32 boroughs had no overarching governing structure. Thus, coordination of day-to-day operations, including transportation, was left to ad hoc or single-purpose bodies. Longrange planning was largely ignored. The new governing structure has spawned a rebirth in metropolitan planning and has made possible innovations like congestion charging. Ken Livingstone, left-wing firebrand and city leader in the 1980s, was elected Greater London’s first mayor. He quickly got to work developing metropolitan planning policies to respond to the pressures of growth and to fix the disrepair of London’s public transportation infrastructure. Livingstone’s administration also prepared for long-term improvements. London’s long-range transportation plan, Transport 2025, calls for a range of ambitious improvements that would provide a 40 percent increase in public transit capacity. Under the plan, the mode share for driving will go down—from 41 to 32 percent. And even more significantly, under the plan, the absolute number of car trips would decrease—from 11 to 10 million per day. The congestion charge was implemented in 2003 as part of Livingstone’s wider vision for Greater London. The system uses a relatively simple approach. All chargeable vehicles (some vehicles are exempt, such as buses, taxis, ambulances and motorcycles) must pay a daily fee of £8 (approximately $12) when entering or traveling within the zone. The charge is in effect between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m., Monday to Friday. The system is enforced through closed circuit TV and automatic license plate recognition systems. Fines of between £60 and £180 ($90-$270) are imposed for non-payment. Traffic in central London went down 20 percent and congestion dropped about 30 percent in the charge zone immediately following implementation of the congestion charge. The charge was also quite lucrative for public coffers. In financial year 2007/2008, it was estimated to have raised £137 million (approximately $220 million) in net revenues. Riding a tide of success, Livingstone was reelected in 2004. In 2007, he expanded the charge to western parts of London, doubling the size of the zone. This extension proved unpopular, however, and was probably one factor that contributed to Livingstone’s electoral defeat in 2008. Stockholm Sweden’s capital region is growing rapidly, at rates similar to Washington, DC. The city currently has a population of 800,000, while the metropolitan region (encompassing the same geographic area as Stockholm County or Stockholms län), has approximately two million. In the coming decades, the region’s population is expected grow more than one percent per year, adding approximately 500,000 residents by 2030. Like Washington and London, employment in Stockholm is anticipated to grow more rapidly than population, requiring more people who work in the region to live outside the region. As people live farther out and become more affluent, automobile travel is expected to increase. Forty percent of trips in the region are currently made by private auto. That number is expected to increase to 48 percent in 2030, given current trends. The Stockholm regional plan—adopted in 2003 and currently under revision—acknowledges that the metropolitan core cannot handle all the forecast growth, so the region is promoting the development of seven satellite “cores” that already are relatively dense. This plan, known as the RUFS (Regional utvecklingsplan för Stockholmsregionen), envisions these satellite cores as true selfsustaining communities, where a person can reasonably expect to live, work, learn, and play. The regional plan also includes extensive new public transit—and a new bypass highway. To deal with the “demand side” of the transportation challenge, in 2007, congestion charging was implemented in Stockholm’s metropolitan core. The background to this move is political and dates back to 2002. Following that year’s elections, the Social Democrats needed the support of the Green Party to form governments at the national level and in the county and city of Stockholm. As a condition for their support, the Greens insisted on a congestion charge program in Stockholm’s core. Congestion charging is in itself quite unusual, but what makes the Stockholm story truly unique is the way in which it was established: The congestion charge system was implemented on a trial basis for seven months from January to July of 2006—and only after that trial was completed did Stockholm residents have a chance to vote on it in a referendum, which was narrowly approved.

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Vehicles are charged a fee whenever they enter or exit Stockholm’s charge area. The charge is made through cameras automatically photographing license plates (transponders were used during the trial period, but were later abandoned). The charge per passage is between $1.30 and $2.60 (10-20 Swedish kronor)—relatively cheap for a country as pricey as Sweden. The maximum charge is about $10 (60 kronor) per day. Unlike London, which has just one rate, the fees in Stockholm are higher during rush hours. They are not, however, adjusted according to traffic volumes. Certain vehicles are exempted, including “environmental cars” (alternative energy vehicles), vehicles for disabled people, motorcycles and emergency vehicles. The exemption for “environmental cars” will be phased 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 public support. Policy makers, planners, and the public have largely accepted the necessity of road pricing in achieving a sustainable transportation vision, although some observers are skeptical about the role of the current congestion charge in achieving the goals of that vision. In particular, there is concern that the revenues from the congestion charge are currently dedicated to building a highway bypass, which could in turn have a contrary effect by encouraging more driving and more auto-dependent land development. Manchester In December 2008, nearly 80 percent of voters in Greater Manchester rejected a referendum to implement a congestion charge in the center of the city. The Manchester referendum would have leveraged up to £3 billion ($4.8 billion) for transportation improvements in Greater Manchester. Half that funding (£1.5 billion) would have been provided from the central government’s Transport Innovation Fund (TIF). The remainder of the new funds would have been raised through the congestion charge and increased revenues from public transit. The Labour government of Tony Blair set up the TIF in 2004, as a national transportation funding mechanism to encourage programs that manage transportation demand, particularly through congestion pricing. As a condition for receiving TIF funds, the government required Manchester to implement a congestion charge. This requirement stirred resentment among Manchester voters, even among those who were inclined to support road pricing. Moreover, from the beginning, the commitment of Manchester’s leadership to road pricing seems to have been lukewarm. It seems the motivation for pursuing this policy had less to do with tackling traffic congestion in the city center, or even reducing car use more generally, than with leveraging funding from a central source in order to help pay for other transportation projects. Originally, regional leaders had not planned to hold a referendum on the TIF bid, however, after they failed to get agreement on the package among local authorities in Greater Manchester, they got were backed into it. This lack of commitment to both the concept of road pricing and a public plebiscite on the issue may have doomed it from the start. LESSONS FROM EUROPE Certain key themes emerged in my interviews that are essential for understanding how congestion charge systems in Stockholm and London gained public support. The failure in Manchester to convince voters of the benefits of congestion charging also produced important lessons. All three cases illustrate that it is essential to earn the public’s trust by communicating a simple, clear vision that addresses a problem the public can see and understand. 1. Define the Problem If the public are to be persuaded that congestion charging is necessary, it is essential to clearly define and articulate the problem that the scheme is designed to address. Congestion was a recognized problem in London and Stockholm. Leaders in those cities did not need to waste time convincing the public of that fact. Other long-term challenges facing those cities were also clearly articulated and understood. Short-term transit improvements were needed (desperately needed, in London’s case) and on a longer-term basis, more transit capacity is required. Those plans are in place and moving forward. In contrast, observers of Manchester’s defeated congestion charge referendum told me that the clear purpose for congestion charging was not so obvious. Congestion was not a significant problem in Manchester, certainly in comparison with London, so the solution seemed unnecessary. The experience in Manchester suggests that using congestion charging as a method of reducing car use in an urban area may not always be the most appropriate policy. The lesson here appears to be that local circumstances must be fully taken into account before seeking to use such a radical, and potentially controversial, policy instrument.

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

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

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

About GMF
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting greater cooperation and understanding between North America and Europe. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working on transatlantic issues, by convening leaders to discuss the most pressing transatlantic themes, and by examining ways in which transatlantic cooperation can address a variety of global policy challenges. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany on the 25th anniversary of the Marshall Plan as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, 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.

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