What can Cambridge learn from the Gothenburg congestion charge?

Heart on a bridge over one of Gothenburg's canals

Gothenburg started charging drivers for driving into and out of the city in 2013

Gothenburg, Sweden’s second city, is surrounded by 38 sets of cameras, which quietly raise around £70m a year in taxes. Ten years on from Gothenburg introducing its congestion charge, what has it meant for city dwellers and for British cities, such as Cambridge, considering similar plans?

Bernadette Johansson feels she is being punished.

Her husband Lars-Gunnar wants more carrot and less stick.

They are discussing Gothenburg’s congestion charge – a system that still draws criticism 10 years later.

“I think it’s very good that cities are thinking about the environment, but we can’t punish all the time,” says Bernadette while sitting in her kitchen overlooking a lake in the countryside around 30 minutes from the city centre.

Sometimes she has “no other choice” but to drive into the city because public transport isn’t cheaper or more convenient, says Bernadette.

Bernadette Johannson

Bernadette’s message to Cambridge is to get the right infrastructure in place to give motorists a workable alternative

Bernadette, 69, who moved to Sweden from her home in Essex 35 years ago, said: “I have to go to hospital visits, dental visits, all that stuff.

“I can’t spend four or five hours [on buses] go to a dental or hospital appointment.

“I think it’s unfair,” she says. “I think people are being punished. They’re not making it easy for people [who drive their own, rather than company, cars] to go into town.”

Lars-Gunnar served as a Gothenburg police officer for 44 years.

He says he supports environmental issues “but to me it’s a way for the government to get money”.

“I feel for the shop owners who are inside [the charging zone] and they struggle a bit because people choose to go to the places where they can park for free and there’s no charge.”

How does Cambridge compare to Gothenburg?

Congestion charge sign

Congestion charge sign

  • Population: Cambridge has 146,000 people compared to Gothenburg’s 588,000

  • Congestion charge: Cambridge is considering a daily charge of £5 for cars, £10 for vans and £50 for HGVs between 07:00 and 19:00 on weekdays. Prices in Gothenburg start from around 70p off-peak to £1.75 at peak times, between 06:00 and 18:29 on weekdays. There is a maximum charge of £4.70 per day

  • Where will the money go? Cambridge City Council hopes to raise £50m a year to improve the bus network and walking and cycling facilities. The Gothenburg system brings in £70m a year which goes on infrastructure projects

  • Influence: Cambridge hopes to reduce congestion by 50%. Gothenburg says congestion has been reduced by 10% to 15%

If all this is known, similar concerns may have been raised about proposals for a Cambridge Sustainable Travel Zone or congestion charge, which could see similar cameras on the city’s streets. aiming to raise £50m per year for bus, cycling and walking. improvements.

What would the Johanssons write on a postcard to Cambridge?

“To get the right infrastructure – think of the private person, think of the pensioners and make it attractive and viable for people to enter the town,” says Bernadette.

The congestion charge is definitely a stick for her husband and he would like to “see a carrot instead”.

Cambridge, he says, should “create something that is a big carrot for people to use public transport and avoid congestion charges”.

Tram in Gothenburg

Public transport use increased by 8% in the year after the charge started and has been rising ever since

Another lesson from Gothenburg for Cambridge is how unpopular the charge has always been.

Even in Greta Thunberg’s home country and in a city with a developed public transport network, including trams that run through the suburbs and into the centre, the congestion charge has never been supported by a majority.

A referendum in 2014 – held the year after it was introduced – saw 57% against it.

In an almost even twist on Viking drama, officials said the referendum was only advisory and kept the charge in place.

A public opinion tracker from the University of Gothenburg’s SOM Institutet has consistently shown a negative approval rating.

Theo Pope

Theo Papaioannou co-founded and led a political party that campaigned against the congestion charge

Ten years ago, Theo Papaioannou, who is now 47 years old, was instrumental in putting pressure on the authorities to hold the referendum.

He co-founded and led the political party Vägvalet, which was formed to fight the accusation.

“It has become like an unlimited source of income for the municipality without any consequences if something goes wrong,” he says, standing in view of the Town Hall, where he was a seat on the city council for eight years.

“Everything we said 10 years ago, 15 years ago is happening right now.”

He describes the charge as an “unfair cost” which drivers are “very angry about”.

“I think they see it as an extra cost that they don’t really need to be paying to be honest,” he says. “It’s like a punishment for going back and forth to your job or taking your children to school.”

His main concern, he says, is the “democratic process – that they didn’t do the democratic process much better and inform the citizens” about the charge.

Speaking to those in Cambridge who want to stop the congestion charge plans, he says: “I would write to say to them… if you want to get the politician’s ear, you need to start very quickly now and start forming an opinion about it.

“It’s very difficult when you’re from the outside [trying to get] to the inside, but they have to try hard to get the attention of the politicians.

“You have to protest hard when you are outside the political system.”

But not everyone you meet in the city is charged an anti-congestion fee.

Erica Abrahamsson

Erica Abrahamsson says the congestion charge is a good way for the city to raise money

Erica Abrahamsson, 21, says some people avoid driving because of the charge.

“But actually I think that’s good,” she says, “because we have very good trams and buses”.

“Usually I just take the bus. Gothenburg is quite big, but the buses go everywhere.

“I feel like they have to get the money somewhere so I think that’s a pretty good way to get it. I think it’s better to charge here where we have a better alternative.”

Madeleine Karlson, 47, agrees.

I think it’s okay. It’s a good thing we can help,” she says.

Gothenburg’s “congestion tax” is part of the West Sweden Agreement, an agreement agreed in 2009 between the national government and regional authorities.

It provided SEK 34bn (£2.66bn) for infrastructure projects, including a new bridge over the Göta älv river and a railway tunnel under the city, known as the Western Link. The congestion charge must deliver some SEK 14bn (£1.1bn) of the funds.

In addition to raising money, city authorities say that since it began in 2013, traffic flow has decreased between 10% and 15%. Public transport use increased by 8% in the first year and has been rising ever since.

Viktor Hultgren, 38, oversees the congestion charge for city authorities.

He says there is a 10% reduction in traffic “maybe… not much noise, but it has a clear impact on congestion”.

He admits the city wouldn’t have the fee if it didn’t bring money to the city.

“I think that’s the main purpose in building these fees,” he says.

But his advice to Cambridge is to “focus less on the money and more on the crowd”.

“I think you should try to see where you have congestion problems and come up with a congestion charge system that tackles these problems more than [raising] income,” he says.

“I think public acceptance would be higher if you could see more clearly what impact the charge has on traffic congestion.

“I think some people see the congestion charge as a way to make money, they don’t see the benefits of this system. It has clear benefits and it’s hard for some people to see.”

Thomas Sterner

Thomas Sterner, from the University of Gothenburg, says it is “surprising and ground-breaking” that Cambridge is considering a congestion charge

For Thomas Sterner, an environmental economist at the University of Gothenburg, it is “surprising and ground-breaking” that “a relatively small city like Cambridge” is considering a congestion charge “before some of the big ones like Manchester or Liverpool” are based on their own.

“I think it needs to be thought through carefully and combined with policies that make cycling easier and flexible public transport,” he says.

“Economists tend to think most about efficiency, that’s important too, but fairness is usually the most important thing in terms of public acceptance.

When asked what might be included on his postcard from Cambridge, where he spent a sabbatical in the 1980s, he paused for a moment and said: “I think I’d like to write a letter because this is so complicated enough.”

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