Congestion charging for cars has become a standard measure of traffic control in many cities. But what about “reverse congestion charging” for cyclists?
This is an idea being proposed for Stockholm in a new report from Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology. Having studied the barriers Stockholmers face in switching from cars to bikes, the institute has recommended that the city’s existing congestion charge zone be adapted to benefit people commuting by bike. Some money earned through the congestion charge (which covers most of the inner city) could be funneled back into cycling benefits—not as cash in hand, but as credits towards bike repairs or upgrades to studded tires for winter riding. According to institute staff, the plan would do more than provide practical incentives.
“It's all about [sending the right] signals,” project leader Teo Enlund told newspaper Dagens Nyheter. “Those who make the jump to start cycling rather than traveling by car should get a pat on the back, not a kick in the face.”
The proposal addresses an important next step in weaning the Stockholm region off cars. While the city proper has become increasingly bike-, public transit-, and pedestrian-friendly, the wider suburbs are still lagging behind. This is understandable, given that densities are lower and that longer distances to the city center make cycling there a less casual undertaking. Providing active encouragement to residents outside the current congestion zone to pedal into the city could help tip the balance.
Other proposals suggested by the institute could also help, including allowing bikes on trains and creating broader two-lane cycle highways that heighten a rider’s sense of safety.
The institute’s recommendation of cash or in-kind benefits for cyclists isn’t the first of its kind. Several European countries have lined up various incentives and benefits to get people on to bikes—most notably an experiment in France last summer where a control group of 10,000 employees were paid €0.25 a kilometer to cycle to work. This had only limited success, partly because commuters still had access to free parking. Given that the habits the scheme tried to discourage were heavily ingrained, the reward itself was also arguably on the low side.
The Stockholm method could potentially prove more effective because it has a better balance of carrot and stick. The cycling benefits would be funded by drivers paying a fee to enter the congestion zone, so the incentive to bike would be matched more explicitly with a disincentive to drive.
This form of behavioral engineering might sounds intrusive to some, but it also reflects the real, hidden costs that cars incur for cities. So far, much of the revenue from Stockholm’s congestion charge is being funneled into another road project: the massive, controversial Förbifart Stockholm, a new, mainly underground expressway which will channel through-traffic across the city into tunnels. Given that getting Stockholmers to switch to bikes would lower pollution and congestion levels—and thus reduce long-term costs for the region’s municipalities—it seems fair enough to pass some of these savings on to the people who made them possible.