What can Cambridge learn from Gothenburg’s congestion charge?

A heart on a bridge over one of Gothenburg's canals

Gothenburg began charging motorists to enter and pass the city in 2013

Gothenburg, Sweden’s second city, is surrounded by 38 camera sets, quietly collecting around £70m a year in taxes. A decade since Gothenburg introduced the congestion charge, what has it meant for both city dwellers and British cities, such as Cambridge, to consider similar plans?

Bernadette Johansson feels punished.

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

They are discussing Gothenburg’s congestion charge, a system that still draws criticism today after 10 years.

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

Sometimes she has “no alternative” but to drive into the city because public transport is neither cheaper nor more convenient, Bernadette says.

Bernadette Johannson

Bernadette’s message for Cambridge is to get the infrastructure right to give drivers a viable alternative

Bernadette, 69, who moved to Sweden from her home in Essex 35 years ago, added: ‘I have to go for hospital visits, dental visits, all that sort of thing.

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

“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] enter the city”.

Lars-Gunnar was a Gothenburg police officer for 44 years.

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

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

How do Cambridge and Gothenburg compare?

Congestion charge sign

Congestion charge sign

  • Population: Cambridge is home to 146,000 people compared to 588,000 in Gothenburg

  • Congestion charge: Cambridge are considering a flat daily rate 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 at peak times to £1.75 at peak times, between 06:00 and 18:29 on weekdays. There is a maximum daily charge of £4.70

  • Where will the money go? Cambridge City Council hopes to raise £50 million a year to improve the bus network, walking and cycling facilities. Gothenburg’s system earns £70 million a year which goes to infrastructure projects

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

If all of this sounds familiar, it could be because similar fears have been raised over proposals for Cambridge’s sustainable travel zone or congestion charge, which could see similar cameras on the city’s streets aiming to raise £50m all around the world. ‘year for bus, cycling and walking improvements.

What would the Johanssons write on a postcard to Cambridge?

“To get the infrastructure right, think private, think about retirees and make it attractive and feasible for people to go to the city,” Bernadette says.

For her husband, the traffic tax “is definitely a stick” and he “would like to see a carrot instead”.

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

A tram in Gothenburg

Use of public transport increased by 8% a year after the levy began and has been on the rise ever since

Another lesson from Gothenburg for Cambridge is how consistently unpopular the prosecution has been.

Even in Greta Thunberg’s hometown and a city with a developed public transport network, including trams criss-crossing the suburbs and downtown, the majority have never supported the congestion charge.

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

In a twist almost worthy of the Scandinavian drama, officials said the referendum was advisory only and kept the charge in place.

A public opinion watcher from the SOM Institutet of the University of Gothenburg has consistently shown to have a negative approval rating.

Theo Papaioannou

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

Ten years ago, Theo Papaioannou, now 47, was instrumental in lobbying the authorities to hold the referendum.

He co-founded and led the Vägvalet political party, which was set up to fight the prosecution.

“It’s become like an unlimited source of income for the municipality with no consequences if something goes wrong,” he says, standing within sight of City Hall, where he held 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 expense” that drivers “are really upset about”.

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

His main concern, he says, is with the “democratic process — that they haven’t done the democratic process much better and informed the citizens” about the allegation.

Addressing those in Cambridge who want to stop the congestion charging schemes, he says: ‘I would like to write to them to tell them that… if you want to get to the politician’s ear, you need to start very fast now and start building opinion at the regard.

“It’s really hard when you come from the outside [trying to get] inside, but they have to make an effort to attract the attention of politicians.

“You have to protest very hard when you are out of the political system.”

But not everyone you meet in the city is taxed against traffic.

Erica Abramsson

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 accusation.

“But I actually think it’s quite good,” he says, “because we have great trams and buses.”

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

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

Madelen Karlson, 47, agrees.

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

Gothenburg’s congestion tax is part of the West Sweden Agreement, a pact signed in 2009 between the national government and regional authorities.

It has provided SEK 34 billion (£2.66 billion) for infrastructure projects, including a new bridge over the river Göta älv and a railway tunnel under the city, known as the West Link. The congestion charge is to provide around 14 billion SEK (£1.1 billion) of funds.

In addition to raising funds, city officials say since it began in 2013, traffic flow has dropped between 10% and 15%. Public transit use increased by 8% in the first year and has been on the rise ever since.

Viktor Hultgren, 38, oversees congestion charging for city authorities.

He says a 10% reduction in traffic “maybe… doesn’t sound like much, but it has a clear impact on congestion.”

He admits the city wouldn’t get prosecuted if he didn’t bring money to the city.

“I think that was the main focus in constructing these allegations,” he says.

But his advice in Cambridge is to focus ‘less on the money and more on the congestion’.

“I think you should try to see where you have congestion problems and create a congestion charging system that addresses these problems more than [raising] come in,” he says.

“I think public acceptance would be greater if we could see more clearly what impact the charge has on 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 Stern

Thomas Sterner of the University of Gothenburg says it is ‘surprising and pioneering’ that Cambridge is considering a congestion charge

For Thomas Sterner, an environmental economist at the University of Gothenburg, it is “surprising and pioneering” for a “relatively small city like Cambridge” to consider a congestion charge “before some of the bigger ones like Manchester or Liverpool” have established the their Own.

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

“Economists have usually thought mostly about efficiency, which is also important, but fairness is usually the most important thing when it comes to public acceptance.

When asked what her Cambridge postcard, where she spent a gap year in the 1980s, might include, she reflects for a moment and says, “I think I’d write a letter because it’s quite complicated.”

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