Is congestion charging the answer to Auckland’s traffic woes?

Dr Matthew Birchall
NZ Herald
11 April, 2024

Good ideas often take time to gain traction. Congestion charging is no exception.


A vast body of academic research and international experience backs congestion charging. It works by charging people who use certain roads during busy times. This encourages people to travel during quieter times or use other modes of transport.


Those who pay benefit from faster, more reliable journeys during peak hours, while those using alternative transport modes do not pay anything. Moreover, easing traffic can reduce the need for costly new transport infrastructure like additional roads.


When the average Auckland commuter spends five days per year stuck in traffic, the case for road pricing strategies like congestion charging is clear. Congestion charging can get Kiwis moving again.


But to ensure the policy's success, insights from international best practice are crucial. Stockholm’s highly successful scheme is a prime example.


Stockholm’s congestion charging scheme, introduced as a seven-month trial in 2006, had an immediate impact. Traffic volume dropped by 22% per day on average, and emissions fell by 30%. Road users and environmentalists alike saw the benefits of reduced traffic. A referendum found support among 53% of voters, leading to the introduction of a permanent congestion charging scheme in 2007.


Stockholm’s trial period played a crucial role in demonstrating the benefits of congestion charging. There was a reduction in traffic congestion, improved air quality, and increased use of public transport. Effective public communication and engagement were vital for turning initial public scepticism into support.


Kiwi politicians and officials have been talking for an eternity about implementing Swedish-style charging to manage traffic on our roads. As far back as 2004, Cabinet instructed the Ministry of Transport to investigate the feasibility and desirability of road pricing in Auckland. Michael Wood deserves credit for progressing congestion charging during the last Government, but Kiwis are still waiting for implementation.


Now, the long wait appears to be over.


Minister of Transport Simeon Brown has signalled that the Government is “moving at pace” to introduce legislation to enable local councils to roll out congestion charging. Anticipation is high that a bill will be tabled around the middle of the year.


It seems that the idea is catching on fast. Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown has said he is eager to see congestion charging “underway as soon as possible.” Wellington City Council has also floated the idea of introducing congestion charging.


This momentum is encouraging. According to Geoff Cooper, general manager of strategy at the New Zealand Infrastructure Commission, congestion charging is “one of the most significant moves we can make to improve our transportation network.” The New Zealand Transport Agency estimates the cost of congestion to be nearly $1 billion annually (around 1% of GDP).


New Zealand is not likely to mimic Stockholm’s trial period. It should, however, develop an effective communications strategy to sell the benefits of congestion charging. After all, no one likes paying a new charge without a clear sense of what they get in return. There has long been hesitancy about infrastructure pricing in New Zealand, so ensuring that road users are well-informed and understand the rationale behind congestion charging will be paramount.


The messages coming out of Auckland are mixed. Mayor Brown has a refreshing candour. He rightly grasps that social licence for transport policy in the Super City has been lacking in recent years. However, he appears overly nonchalant about the necessity of consultation and winning public buy-in.


An effective approach may be to lean into the deliberative democracy process overseen by Auckland Council. Drawing on the experience of Stockholm, Auckland Council recently consulted 100 Aucklanders to gather their views on how the region should solve its transport problems. Strikingly, congestion charging saw a significant boost after the two-day forum. Nearly 40 percent of participants shifted from a negative stance to a positive one.


Another key lesson to draw from Stockholm is to make sure that congestion charges are primarily set to manage traffic flow, not to raise revenue. Nothing would be more damaging to the prospects of congestion charging in New Zealand than a perception that it is simply a new tax – or a way of punishing drivers and reducing Vehicle Kilometres Travelled. Stockholm’s commitment to managing traffic flow has contributed to the positive regard that its people now hold for congestion charging. It is seen for what it is – a practical solution to alleviate congestion, rather than taxation by stealth.


Congestion charging is not a silver bullet to New Zealand’s transport problems, but it will make a huge difference to how people get around our major cities. If we follow the example of Stockholm, Auckland and Wellington may soon serve as models for other cities tired of endless gridlock.

To read the full article on the NZ Herald website, click here.

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