Public Works: Lessons From Stockholm's Traffic Tax
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Public Works: Lessons From Stockholm’s Traffic Tax

Public reaction to the Swedish system shows how attitudes toward commuting can evolve.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

For the better part of a decade, Stockholm has been charging its drivers a traffic congestion tax. Every time a vehicle enters or leaves central Stockholm between 6:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. on a weekday, its driver incurs a toll of 10 to 20 Swedish kronor (about CDN$1.50 to $3), depending on the time of day.

Road tolls are nothing special or unique. Toronto has Highway 407, for instance. But Stockholm’s gridlock-busting initiative has attracted attention worldwide, thanks in part to a TED Talk delivered by one of its designers, Jonas Eliasson, director of the Centre for Transport Studies at Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology.

Eliasson’s 2012 lecture focused on the way in which the congestion tax was rolled out, and the reaction it got from the public.

The tax was first implemented as a seven-month pilot project, in January 2006. When the plan was announced, it had only 30 per cent public approval. When the tax came into effect, the number of vehicles on the road dropped by 20 per cent almost overnight. At the end of the pilot project, when the tax was lifted, traffic levels returned to normal. But in August 2007, when the tax was brought back on a permanent basis, traffic levels once again dropped by 20 per cent.

At the time of Eliasson’s TED Talk, traffic numbers were relatively low, and surveys pegged public support for the tax at 70 per cent. More significantly, the majority of Stockholm commuters said their predominant mode of transportation hadn’t changed since the advent of the tax, which, given the reduction in the number of cars on the road, seems unlikely.

“Travel patterns are much less stable than you might think,” Eliasson explained to the TED audience. “Every day people make new decisions, and people change and the world changes around them. And each day, all of these decisions are sort of nudged ever so slightly away from rush-hour car driving in a way that people don’t even notice.”

The “nudge” method stands in stark contrast to the traffic-fighting measures Paris has taken. Earlier this year the French capital tried banning 50 per cent of all vehicles from entering the downtown. The idea was abandoned after one day.

Something Eliasson doesn’t discuss is the relativity of traffic congestion. While Stockholm has seen congestion decrease significantly since 2006, the city still struggles with slower commutes than much larger cities in Europe and North America.

That in itself is a valuable lesson for any city works initiative: change is not likely going to be wholesale. Canadian bike-sharing scheme Bixi staked its entire business on the idea that people would switch from cars to bikes, and it took a PR beating when it turned out that the conversions weren’t happening to the extent promised. Now the City of Toronto has taken up the bike-sharing torch in hopes that the concept can succeed. Given enough time, maybe it will.

Sometimes, listening to the rhetoric about transport in Toronto, it sounds as if we’re locked in a Hatfield and McCoy–style blood feud between motorists, cyclists, and public transit users. But the truth is that few people are so strictly dedicated to their chosen mode of transportation. Ultimately, people just want to get to work and get home as quickly, cheaply, and painlessly as possible.