Monday, 22 October 2012

Copenhagen congestion charging looking less likely

Last year, the government in Denmark changed, with the election of a leftwing coalition which included in its coalition agreement a commitment to introducing congestion pricing in Copenhagen.   I wrote optimistically at that point, as it appeared that the real debate was not about "if" it should be introduced, but "how".

Original cordon concept for Copenhagen congestion charging
Yet no one should underestimate the politics around congestion charging.  The real push for charging in Denmark has been from the Socialist People's Party (a green/socialist party) which had it as a core part of its platform to reduce traffic and emissions in Copenhagen, and to boost walking, cycling and public transport as an alternative.  The party leader pushed in the elections that he would slash public transport fares with the revenues from the charge, which gained support among non-motorists in Copenhagen.   However, the SPP has only 16 out of the 179 seats in the Danish Parliament, compared to the senior partner, the Social Democrats (a centre-left party) which has 44 seats, and is significantly more sensitive to public opinion.

The core problem is that the modelling of future revenues proved disappointing.  According to the Copenhagen Post, the revenues were estimated to be less than half of the DKr.2 billion (US$352 million) originally forecast, dashing hopes that congestion charging could fund a major cut in fares and major capital works on the scale envisaged.  

Opposition to the concept was strong among business leaders, and the opposition Venstre party (free market liberals - which is ironic given the attribution by some that congestion pricing is a market oriented approach), but it was the opposition from local leftwing politicians, aligned to the two main parties in government, that made it increasingly embarrassing for the central government.

So the result is that congestion charging has been shelved, for now.  The government announced it is spending DKr 1 billion (US$176 million) on improving public transport and reducing fares in February 2012, and created a Congestion Commission to look at long term solutions to addressing congestion and air pollution in the city.

Yet that Commission is having problems of its own.  It cannot get agreement among its 24 members about potential solutions.  It is meant to report on recommendations by 1 January 2012, but the Commission is deeply divided between business representatives (opposing charging) and environmentalists (supporting it).

A Copenhagen Post article claims the government is optimistic an outcome will be reached, but the Venstre Party believes it is too divided.

I previously wrote about how I thought Copenhagen should go about it, describing the main proposal for a cordon around central Copenhagen. For it should not simply consider the single cordon, it should not just consider a cordon ala London, but consider how similar type systems exist in Italy and Singapore.  

The key is really to not be wedded to a single concept, to consider experiences elsewhere and to develop options that not only mean pricing is more discreetly targeted at congestion, but that the net revenues are used for some combination of new capital investment in the transport network of the charged zone and/or tax relief for businesses in the zone.

It is notable already that there is support by some other political parties for congestion pricing in Copenhagen, but not the cordon solution previously described.  The Radical Left party (Radikale Venstre - socially liberal centrist party) is also part of the coalition, with 17 seats.  It is glad the concept has been scrapped, but it support GPS based distance based road pricing.   The party's transport spokesman, Andreas Steenberg, claims the opposition Venstre and Conservative People's Parties share that view.

Bearing in mind that Denmark is also pursuing GPS based road pricing for heavy vehicles (more on that soon), this is consistent with such an approach.


It appears unlikely that Copenhagen will get congestion charging in the near future, partly because only one of parties in government is still pushing it, but also because the concept being supported is insufficiently flexible or targeted enough to avoid criticism from businesses that the impact will be blunt.

My guess is that the Congestion Commission will agree that pricing could reduce congestion and emissions, but disagree about how it should be implemented and what it should look like.   I suspect the cordon option, unless radically altered, will be gone, but that talk of GPS based pricing will remain.   If so, whilst GPS based distance charging in an urban environment would have many advantages, one of them is not cost and another is not rapid deployment.

It can be sure that if there is a lot of support in Denmark for the broad idea of charging to manage traffic demand, then the GPS option will remain for some time.   The political advantage of that is that it can always be said to be too risky to do at present, but that offers little for relieving traffic congestion in Copenhagen.

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