Tackling Congestion: Lessons Learned from London and Stockholm

Other Cities Show Greater Boston Needs Both Carrots and Sticks

The below column, written by NAIOP CEO Tamara Small, first appeared in Banker and Tradesman on December 15, 2019.

Whether it’s in a board room, on a soccer field, or at the doctor’s office, the conversation invariably touches on traffic. Our daily commutes have become personal battles and the details are shared like war stories.  

As area residents know, and as multiple reports have confirmed, congestion has gotten worse in Greater Boston. Boston’s economy is booming – with nearly 100,000 new jobs created in the last year alone. There are 300,000 more vehicles on the road than five years ago, which is only projected to grow with the on-demand economy. The result? Bottlenecks on highways and local roads throughout the region. It’s clear that creative solutions, big and small, are needed to address congestion.  

Boston is not alone. Other cities across the nation are struggling to address traffic, air pollution, unsafe roads and emissions. Recognizing that the U.S. benefits by learning how other nations have tackled this issue the Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge, along with the Barr Foundation, brought a study group to London and Stockholm to see firsthand how these cities have used one specific tool: congestion pricing.  

How Other Cities Tackle Traffic 

The group, of which I was a part, included elected officials, environmental advocates, and business representatives from San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Washington, D.C., Honolulu, Boston and Philadelphia. We met with government officials, transit industry experts, and local community members who shared how London and Stockholm implemented congestion pricing and how it has evolved over the years.  

London launched congestion pricing in 2003 after Ken Livingstone’s mayoral campaign included a pledge to reduce the number of vehicles entering the city. In advance of the launch of the program, London focused on making public transit and other alternatives to car travel easier, cheaper, faster and more reliable. It expanded its already robust public transit options by adding 300 buses, froze fare increases, created discounts for residents in the district and upgraded trains and subways heading into the zone.  

Within the first year of the program, the number of cars in the congestion pricing zone dropped, eventually creeping back up somewhat as the population increased and road capacity was reduced by allocating space to cyclists, pedestrians, and buses. Today, the number of people riding buses is up 40 percent and twice as many people commute by bicycle than in the year 2000. Overall, traffic in London has decreased by 20 percent.  

In Stockholm, congestion pricing was implemented in 2007 after a six-month pilot program. Again, in preparation for the program, major investments in public transit were made, including 14 new bus lines, more high frequency trains, and 2,500 new park and ride spots. People experienced a decrease in traffic congestion starting on day one of the program, which has continued with a permanent reduction of 20 percent less traffic.  

Four Key Takeaways 

In some ways, comparing Boston to Stockholm or London is not an apples–to–apples comparison. These cities have very different public transit systems. However, as the Greater Boston area attempts to address congestion through a variety of mechanisms, the following are the key takeaways from the study trip:  

  1. Pilot programs work. In Stockholm, public support for congestion pricing was extremely low until a pilot program allowed people to experience it firsthand. It demonstrated the significant impact congestion pricing could have on traffic. A pilot program also provides critical data that could shape and fine–tune a more comprehensive program.
  2. People will not get out of their cars if alternative mobility options do not exist. Whether it’s new protected bike lanes, expanded bus routes or increased frequency of commuter rail and subways, investments and expansion must be made before a comprehensive congestion pricing program can succeed. Importantly, the revenue generated by congestion pricing in Stockholm and London was used to further expand these options. In addition, riders must be confident that the public transit system is reliable.
  3. A successful congestion pricing program must consider equity – whether it is the impact on certain populations or regions. Outreach to key community stakeholders along with data collection on exactly who would be impacted and in what ways are critical in the development of congestion pricing programs. 
  4. Congestion pricing is an effective tool. Cordon and area pricing have generally reduced driving by 15-20 percent and congestion by 30 percent or more. Importantly, in Stockholm, even after investments were made to expand public transit options, ridership did not increase until after congestion pricing was implemented. This is proof that a carrot and stick approach is needed to effectively reduce congestion.  

One thing is clear, there is no one silver bullet that will reduce congestion throughout Greater Boston. A wide range of investments and actions is needed. MassDOT recently issued recommendations on how they plan to tackle congestion including, among other things, addressing local and regional bottlenecks where feasible; reinventing bus transit at both the MBTA and at regional transit authorities; increasing MBTA ridership and capacity; and creating infrastructure to support shared travel modes.  

Changes of all sizes will make a difference and NAIOP looks forward to working with MassDOT and key stakeholders as discussions around addressing congestion continue.  

Governor Patrick signs Jobs Bill into law

The “Jobs Bill” – An Act Relative to Infrastructure Investment, Enhanced Competitiveness & Economic Growth in the Commonwealth – was signed into law August 7, 2012 by Governor Patrick.

As I was quoted in the Governor’s press release: “This bill is the result of a close collaborative effort by the House, Senate, Governor’s economic team, and the business community. Although the Commonwealth has fared better than most of the country, this wide-ranging bill creates a welcoming environment for innovation and growth. Combined with the ongoing, system-wide regulatory review process, Massachusetts continues to be attractive for business expansion.”

A summary of the various sections of the bill is available for review.  NAIOP is most pleased with the extension of the Permit Extension Act (Section 173 of Chapter 240 of the Acts of 2010).  Permits in effect or existence at any time between August 15, 2008  and August 15, 2012 will be extended by a total of 4 years (an addition of two years to the previous extension and four years for permits issued during the past two years). The extension will preserve state and local permitting decisions, allowing permitted projects to move forward without costly and time consuming delays to reissue permits. This impacts  all properties: commercial, housing, business expansions, universities, hospitals, and infrastructure projects.

In addition, the bill creates a new Local Infrastructure Development Program (Chapter 23L) that gives municipalities another tool for leveraging private funding to finance infrastructure improvements that are needed to support economic growth. It would fund infrastructure for homeowners and commercial projects without using local or state funds.  This is strictly a local municipal option to assist property owners who desire to finance infrastructure (e.g. roads, water, sewer, alternative energy, etc.)  The MassDevelopment-issued bonds would be secured and paid back by betterment liens on the benefited real estate.

Another win is the expansion of the successful I-cubed (Infrastructure Investment Incentive) program, which increases the number of projects per community from two to three. It also increases the available funding for the program from $250 million to $325 million.  It will add parking garages to the definition of public infrastructure improvements, and will include the taxes generated from construction jobs and purchases as part of the calculation for new state tax revenues.  I-cubed, which originally passed in 2006, was designed to finance significant new public infrastructure improvements necessary to support major new private development.

The Act will also streamline the current District Improvement Financing (DIF) program, by eliminating the required EACC review of DIF districts and development plans, which will make the program more accessible to cities and towns.

Although the Governor did veto the Brownfields tax credit extension, we are confident that the internal review of this program will result in its extension prior to its expiration a year from now.

This fall, NAIOP will be presenting a special Governmental Affairs educational seminar on this important economic development bill, as well as an update on the many regulatory changes occurring throughout the Administration’s various Departments. Keep an eye out for details!