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Want to ease Vancouver traffic? Look to Stockholm

When city officials in Stockholm introduced road pricing in 2006 as a way to ease costly traffic congestion, they knew they were backing a plan the public abhorred.

No one wanted to pay to use roads that had always been free. Polls showed that 70 per cent of people who used them opposed any system of tolls. Still, the city decided to apply a small road fee during the two rush hours on a seven-month trial basis to see what happened.

What happened was this: The nominal road tax reduced peak congestion by 20 per cent on the very first day. And it stayed that way until August, 2006, when the trial ended and the fees were removed; traffic patterns instantly reverted to their old ways and congestion was as bad as ever.

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A couple of months later a referendum was held on the road pricing system that had been earlier introduced. The seven-month experiment had done its job; a majority of people in Stockholm and surrounding areas voted in favour of reimplementing the fees – although there remained a healthy opposition. By 2011, however, a new poll on the road taxes showed public opinion had swayed dramatically behind the new road pricing arrangement: By then, 70 per cent supported the program.

That was diametrically opposite to the surveys taken when the scheme was first being contemplated. Now, 70 per cent of people in Stockholm wanted to pay for something that they once got for free. Why? Because it made life for those using the roads routinely more tolerable. The couple of euros it cost them to access the roads was worth it. For city officials in Stockholm, it solved their congestion problem and also provided a revenue source for road maintenance and other transportation infrastructure needs.

We mention this, of course, because Metro Vancouver's regional transportation authority, TransLink, is promoting road pricing as a means to cut vehicle use and fund the area's many transit needs. The idea has the support of the region's mayors, who are desperate for a sustainable revenue source to fund an ever-expensive transportation system under increasing pressure thanks to a quickly growing population.

Right now, TransLink gets its funding from taxes on property, fuel, parking and power as well as from fares. But revenue from some of those sources, such as fuel, is diminishing. And overall, it doesn't add up to what the region needs to build new transit lines and address pressing service issues (see badly overcrowded buses). The current funding model is broken. The provincial government's view seems to be, do what you need to do to finance your projects, just make sure the public's onboard.

So, when it comes to road pricing, the B.C. government is saying it would have to be approved in a referendum. The regional mayors are saying that the public is unlikely to say yes to an initiative that is going to cost them more money – especially in the absence of any demonstrated benefit. Why would it?

Which brings us back to Stockholm.

Perhaps, the B.C. government would be amenable to the idea of introducing a road pricing scheme of some sort on a trial basis. It would serve the dual purpose of determining whether the program had the desired effect and also give the public time to see it in action. To put the road pricing question to a vote without any opportunity to truly make the best case for it is almost assuring defeat.

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When the polls in 2011 showed such overwhelming support for the road pricing system, Stockholm officials tried to figure out which drivers had changed their minds from earlier surveys. The answer to the question was problematical; half the drivers now believed that they had always supported such a system. According to Jonas Eliasson, one of the system's architects, people adapted their behaviour so completely they couldn't remember ever opposing the idea.

It's Mr. Eliasson's view that traffic planners make a mistake by trying to decide for people what they should be doing instead of driving during rush hour. Rather, he believes cities should put proper incentives in place and let people go from there.

"You don't plan the details," he said. "People will figure out what to do, how to adapt to this new framework."

And people in Metro Vancouver likely would too.

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