Thursday, February 7, 2013

Congestion Pricing: Neoliberal approaches and their results in three world cities

In 2013 we shall be giving quite a lot of attention to congestion pricing or sweden stockholm congestoin chargingcharging by its many names and variants, all of which sharing the goal of finding ways to make drivers pay for entry and use of a scarce resource, road space in city centers . This fascinating article by Themis Chronopoulos which is introduced here takes quite an original point of view in his thorough analysis of three of the most recent and widely followed  projects (or in the case of New York City, would-be project). (Note: A quick search of Google this morning called up some 4,370,000 references under the single term of congestion pricing. Something must be going on.)

Congestion Pricing: The political viability of a neoliberal spatial mobility proposal in London, Stockholm, and New York City

- Themis Chronopoulos, Urban Research & Practice


This article examines the debates and contradictions that surrounded the promotion of congestion pricing proposals in London, Stockholm, and New York City. On the one hand, congestion pricing is a neoliberal urban proposal that seeks to reduce motor traffic in a cordoned area by pricing out certain drivers. On the other hand, the political authorities believe that the success of congestion pricing proposals depends on the degree of redistributive elements regarding spatial mobility that are built into them. Redistribution in the form of improved mass transit provision was proposed in all three cities and was implemented in Stockholm and London.

The problem with this political gesture is that neoliberals are lukewarm to redistributive politics and consider spatial mobility to be a matter of capacity and not a right. This means that neoliberal political parties because of their skepticism of redistributive politics, have more difficulties in imposing congestion pricing schemes than Left Parties. The congestion pricing proposal of the New York City failed because it was proposed by a neoliberal city administration without a credible redistributive spatial mobility plan.



Congestion pricing is a mechanism under which vehicular congestion is reduced from a cordoned area because drivers are required to pay a fee to enter it (and possibly exit it). If set correctly, this fee discourages many drivers from entering into the congested area and reduces traffic to more optimal levels. Thus, congestion pricing represents a market solution to the decades-old traffic problem in city centers.

In 1975, Singapore implemented a congestion pricing system by making drivers pay to enter its central business district. Although other cities have entertained the idea of congestion pricing, it was not until 2003 that London implemented a comprehensive congestion charge system for its city center. Stockholm was the third such city, with its congestion charge trial program taking place in 2006.

Congestion pricing seeks to alter the dynamics of spatial mobility in cities. Geographers who have a long tradition of analyzing and measuring the movement of people and goods in space have argued that mobility depends on prevailing power relations and that restrictions in mobility can interfere with citizenship and individual rights (Cresswell 2006).

However, under urban neoliberal governance, citizenship has been transformed from a possession of rights to a capacity to act (Rose 2000). In the sphere of mobility, this has profound implications. Powerholders guided by market principles configure and organize space in ways that facilitate certain types of movement and restrict others (Adey 2006, Henderson 2009). Congestion pricing schemes aim to do just this; design spatial mobility systems under which certain drivers are priced out from certain spaces. Although there are environmental and spatial benefits associated with these mobility restrictions, these benefits are obtained through the ability of free market mechanisms to exclude the motorized movement of the not so affluent.

Road pricing proposals are highly controversial and subject to intense popular opposition. Hong Kong, which conducted a road pricing experiment from 1983 to 1985, decided not to actually impose this system because of privacy issues and public opposition (Khan 2001). In Lyon, France, the operator and local authorities of a road toll scheme implemented in 1997 were forced to reduce the tolling area and to significantly decrease toll rates because of popular resistance (Raux and Souche 2004). Voters in Edinburgh, Scotland, rejected a congestion charge scheme in a referendum in 2005 (Rye et al. 2008). In every city where congestion pricing has been proposed, opposition has threatened to derail it.

This article examines the debates surrounding congestion pricing proposals in London, Stockholm, and New York City and advances an explanation of the reasons behind the implementation of the scheme in London and Stockholm and its rejection in New York City.

Congestion pricing is controversial because of its neoliberal dimension, which favors higher income drivers who can afford to pay a fee and punishes lower-income drivers who are burdened by the fee. Eliasson and Mattson (2006) are skeptical of contentions that congestion charges are regressive, claiming that most of these arguments come from an American perspective where the automobile is the main mode of transportation for people of all socioeconomic backgrounds.

They claim that in most European cities, it is affluent people who drive more frequently in the central urban locations, meaning that affluent people end up being penalized for the congestion they cause. Under this framework, low-income people who usually take mass transit are not penalized from congestion charging. This claim could also be applied to New York City, which is different from the typical US city in the sense that the majority of its population patronizes mass transit and drivers tend to be more affluent.

Although these arguments about the class position of drivers have their merits, the neoliberal dimension of congestion pricing is still an issue. Congestion pricing may not affect many low-income people because they tend not to drive, but disproportionately affects many middle-income drivers. Congestion pricing proposals generate conflicts between the middle classes and the upper classes.

In the end, the political acceptability of a congestion pricing scheme largely depends on the redistributive aspects built into it and this mainly concerns the enhancement of mass transit. As the experience of London, Stockholm, and New York City reveals, this is one of the main reasons behind the success or failure of a congestion pricing scheme. The expectation is that many people who take mass transit and could be indifferent or opponents to congestion pricing become supporters of the scheme. Many drivers who can get to their destinations faster and cheaper because of improved mass transit can also become supporters of the scheme. In a way, the elites ally with the lower classes in their support for congestion pricing because both groups benefit. As not everyone in the middle class drives, and given the environmental benefits of congestion pricing, the scheme may also gain the support of middle-income people. Although redistribution goes against neoliberal principles as articulated by orthodox economists, the governing authorities may have to go as far as to downplay the neoliberal aspects of congestion pricing and emphasize the redistributive aspects of the scheme in order to gain popular acceptance. [Excerpt ends here.}

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* For full text of article, go to

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About the author:

Themis ChronopoulosThemis Chronopoulos is Lecturer in American Studies at the University of East Anglia in Norwich U.K.  He holds a Ph.D. from Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, U.S.A. His blog is at He can be reached by email at

About the editor:

about-eb-1jan13 - larger text

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