Stockholm Voters Approve Congestion Charging

But Reject the Political Party That Supported It. Result: Gridlock Over Gridlock.

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On Sunday, residents of Stockholm, Sweden voted to continue their city's seven-month long experiment with congestion charging. With 53 percent of the electorate in favor of congestion charging, the referendum represented a definitive victory for a system that reduced Stockholm's traffic congestion by as much as 50 percent and decreased noxious air pollution by 14 percent. But the politics of traffic, it seems, can never be so simple. The same voters who affirmed congestion charging rejected the political party that was set to implement it. We spoke with James Savage, the editor-in-chief of The Local, an English-language, Internet-based, Swedish newspaper in an effort to sort it out and see if he had any advice for New York City traffic reduction advocates:

Streetsblog: So, what happened in yesterday's election?

James Savage: The tradition in Sweden is to hold all elections on the same day so we have municipal elections, we have a general election and local referenda on various issues. The general election resulted in a change of government with the ruling Social Democrats thrown out after twelve years. In Stockholm, the local municipal authority, which was also Social Democrat, was thrown out and replaced by a center-right coalition.

SB: The headline in your newspaper describes the result of the congestion charging referendum as "Neither a Ja nor a Nej" -- I'm sure I'm not pronouncing that correctly -- but what did you mean by that?

JS: Yeah [laughing], you're not. The congestion charge was introduced by a Social Democratic municipal authority that had gone into elections in 2002 saying that, in fact, there would be no congestion charge. But then the Social Democratic Government, in order to get the support that it needed from the Green Party at the national level, agreed to impose the charge on the municipality in Stockholm. The Social Democratic leadership in Stockholm cooperated with their national leadership even though it was against their manifesto's promises.

annika.jpgSB: Annika Billström (pictured right) is the leader of Stockholm's municipal authority? She's the mayor?

JS: She was the mayor. That's one of the things that happened yesterday. She is no longer the mayor and how much that depends on the way congestion charging was introduced -- that's one of the questions that people are asking now. People suspect that it played quite a large role in her defeat.

SB: How come?

JS: She started out against congestion charging and then basically lay down as soon as the Central Government tried to impose it. That annoyed people even though, ironically, residents of Stockholm eventually started to appreciate the congestion charge and voted to keep it.

SB: So, the party that brought on congestion charging was essentially punished for they way they went about it and yet the referendum still voted in favor of congestion charging.

JS: It's rather contradictory isn't it? But that is basically what happened and the center-right alliance that has been elected to replace Billström and the Social Democrats is broadly opposed to congestion charging.

SB: Must this new government now re-activate the congestion charge? Was the referendum binding?

JS: No. The referendum was only advisory. The government isn't obliged to re-introduce the congestion charge. What makes it more complicated is that the new center-right government has traditionally been opposed to congestion charging. They say that they will respect the will of the people but there is a third confusing factor here. People living in the suburbs which are controlled by different municipal authorities than central Stockholm, and traditionally vote for the right wing, are broadly opposed to the congestion charge because they're the people who have to pay it.

SB: Were these suburban municipalities able to vote on the referendum?

JS: No. And in the plan set up by the Social Democratic government there was no mechanism for the suburbs to be consulted. But the municipal authorities in these different suburbs had their own referenda. The Social Democrats considered this to be completely irrelevant. They weren't going to pay any attention to this at all. But of course now, the Social Democrats are written out of the equation and we've got a center-right government and a center-right council and they will make their own decisions and they will take these referenda into account. So, it puts the whole thing up in the air.

SB: So, the politics of traffic is a mess pretty much everywhere, I guess.

JS: It's a mess [laughing]. It's extremely complicated.


SB: An article in your paper reported that there was a major turn-around in the public mood on congestion charging, that it was unpopular at first and then people warmed up to it. Does yesterday's referendum show that congestion charging worked?

JS: Yeah. While there is a big difference in opinion between people in the City and people outside the City -- if we just stick to the city people were very much in favor of it. Most people in the city don't have cars or if they do have cars they don't use them to go to work every day. So, the streets were noticeably emptier of cars which is much more pleasant for people. The buses moved more quickly through the traffic because there was less congestion.

SB: Wasn't there some benefit to the suburbanites in this? Were they able to get into work faster or anything like that?

JS: Well, yeah, and this is the right wing argument in favor of congestion charging. Certainly some people in the suburbs liked that they could pay their way to get into the city more quickly. And many of these suburbs are fairly wealthy areas. But that was not a majority opinion.

SB: So when will congestion charging start again, if it does?

JS: It is supposed to be introduced in March or April of next year. But because of the political complications the deadline is likely to be pushed further into the future.

SB: Do you think it is going to happen?

JS: I think something will happen, I don't think that the city council in Stockholm and the new mayor will be able to ignore entirely the votes of the majority of people here who, you know, also put her into power. But I think there will be concessions. There will be some kind of compromise solution.

SB: What kinds of compromises might they come up with?

JS: Perhaps a lower price. Or on the right side of Stockholm politics there is talk of building new roads, new ring roads outside the city. So, perhaps a combination of a congestion charge with revenues going towards building a new ring road.

SB: Have you ever been to New York City?

JS: I have, yes.

SB: Without necessarily knowing too much about New York City's local politics what sort of advice would you have for congestion charging advocates here?

JS: You really have to be careful of the geographical divides -- of having a congestion charge that benefits people living in one area and disadvantages people living in another. You've got to find a way to make everybody benefit from it. And it has to be framed as part of a solution for traffic in the region as a whole. If you're looking at it from the position of reducing traffic and getting people out of their cars, then you need to make a big investment in public transport or ring roads and make the link very clear. This is something that the Social Democrats failed to do in Stockholm -- to make a really clear link, like in London, between the money that you get from congestion charging and improvements in public transport. They failed to show that what you're taking with one hand, you're giving with another.

Photo by Jeroen Wolfers