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Editorial: Congestion charge will solve nothing

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15:00 CET+01:00
Driving a car into central Stockholm is about to get expensive, and people aren't happy. Polls show that the majority of voters are against the trial of congestion charging that starts in January, but there is surely a case for encouraging people to use their cars less. Question is – why single out Stockholmers?

There are plenty of reasons for introducing road tolls – reduced traffic on the roads gives cleaner air, a more pleasant environment and makes it easier to get around.

But on a political level, they are being introduced in Stockholm because the Green Party made it a condition for supporting Sweden's Social Democrat government after the 2002 election.

Many here have compared the introduction of congestion charging in Stockholm to the road tolls introduced in London in 2001. Mayor Annika Billström said she wanted to learn from London's experiences when starting to charge motorists in the Swedish capital.

I moved to Stockholm from London just after congestion charges were introduced there, and it's worth pointing out two obvious but crucial differences between the two cities.

In Stockholm, rush hour is still what it says on the box – commuters face delays for brief periods (and over short distances) in the morning and the evening; in pre-toll central London, rush ‘hour' seemed to last all day, with lines of slow moving traffic continuing for mile after mile.

Another difference is that Stockholm already has relatively efficient public transport; London's transport system was creaking at the seams.

But there is no doubt that less traffic is good for the environment, both at a local and at a global level. We may like using our cars – indeed, many people depend on them – but we need to drastically reduce their impact on the environment, not least by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide they release into the atmosphere.

This is not going to be tackled by singling out motorists in big cities – it is something that needs to take in the bigger picture.

Indeed, in some ways Sweden is ahead of the field in the way it deals with this. At a recent European conference on clean fuels held in Stockholm, experts said Sweden was at the cutting edge – 20,000 environmentally-friendly cars are expected to be sold here next year, more per capita than any other European country.

But perhaps if Sweden is really going to make its contribution to reducing the impact of cars on the environment, it should look at another idea being floated in the UK at the moment: road pricing across the country.

This idea, to tax people depending on how much they drive, could really make people think about alternatives such as car sharing, and lead to increased pressure for improved public transport. Greenpeace has suggested that drivers of ‘clean cars' should get a reduction on the tax, while drivers of gas guzzling 4x4s (and Green Party activists in their 1970s Volkswagens) could pay extra.

So instead of slamming taxes on motorists in Stockholm, why not make everyone pay for the real damage done to the environment?

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