Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Finnish government opposes Helsinki congestion charge but..

The City of Helsinki has been investigating congestion charging for the past couple of years, with a comprehensive study undertaken two years ago (here).   Now a new report has been released by a Finnish central government working group saying the fairly obvious, that a Helsinki congestion charge could reduce congestion, improve traffic safety,  reduce air pollution and increase patronage of public transport.   As a city with an excellent metro, suburban rail, tram and bus network, and a downtown bounded by a major ring motorway and water, it seems clear the potential is there. 
Helsinki city showing ring roads around CBD

Yet the response of the Transport Minister, Anu Vehviläinen of the Centre Party, according to the Helsinki Times, has been to oppose the idea for two reasons:
- The mode-shift would require extensive increases in public transport capacity, and there is insufficient funds to pay for this;
- The system proposed is extremely risky.

The public transport issue is real, but one might ask whether this is exaggerated, because a significant part of the change in behaviour will be time shifting and consolidation of journeys.  In addition, what is often ignored is that peak time public transport use is typically underpriced, which is why there is never sufficient funding to provide adequate capacity.  Yet a congestion charge that also increases peak public transport fares would be doubly unpopular.  One solution would be to borrow against future revenues, using that revenue to make improvements to roads or public transport capacity.   

The risk issue arises from the proposed solution, which is to use a GNSS-based distance charging system.  That would mean all vehicles in Helsinki needing an On Board Unit to measure distance correlated by GNSS signals against an on board map.  This has parallels to the German and Slovak heavy vehicle tolling systems.  Technically it could work, but the risk of a government driven programme to do so are not low.  In addition, the key barrier is the cost of retrofitting vehicles with On Board Units of this sophistication.

Of course, for Finland it is about politics, as it is elsewhere.  Finnish Parliamentary Elections are this year, and the   YLE reports how the Helsinki Region Chamber of Commerce is sceptical, which of course means that the big issue - what to do with the revenue - would need to be addressed. 

The current Finnish government is a four headed coalition led by the Centre Party, the liberal centre-right National Coalition Party, the leftwing Greens and the liberal Swedish (yes Swedish) People's Party.  The Greens favour congestion charging, and polling currently shows a threeway split between the Centre, National Coalition Party and the opposition centre-left Social Democrats.   

After the election, there might be some sense about this issue, and I hope Helsinki and Finland can find a way forward that delivers net benefits to the city and transport users.  Getting a politically palatable solution will be a lot of work.

It will be about getting pricing right, about investing in transport bottlenecks and about being creative about technological solutions.   Motorists will need to see net benefits in reduced congestion, other transport users will benefit from less congestion on networks, and the potential for greater viability for other modes.  Overall, it could make Helsinki more competitive internationally.   The key is to apply lessons learnt from elsewhere.

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