olaser / Getty Images. A Stockholm street post-congestion pricing.

Congestion Pricing Lessons from London and Stockholm

Ben Furnas

June 13, 2024

Europe teaches New York how the program wins public support after implementation

Europe teaches New York how the program wins public support after implementation

Last week, Gov. Kathy Hochul shocked the New York political class by placing an “indefinite pause” on a plan to charge drivers entering into the most gridlocked parts of Manhattan (60th Street and below). The plan was designed to ease traffic and raise revenue to support a wide array of improvement and modernization projects to New York’s subways, buses and commuter railways.

Versions of this policy have been contemplated since the 1960s. The latest incarnation was first proposed in 2007, and took more than a decade and one “summer of hell” to pass as part of the state budget in 2019. To its proponents, congestion pricing is an elegant solution to several challenges: traffic-clogged streets, worsening air pollution, limited funding for the region’s transit system and the perverse, toll-avoiding incentives that route cars and trucks through some of the busiest surface streets in the world. But there’s no avoiding the fact that most people in New York are not proponents: An April poll found that 63% of New York State registered voters oppose the charge, including 64% in New York City and 73% in the New York suburbs. The actual and perceived burdens of a new charge (for cars at peak times, $15 to drive into the zone) have given the governor a pair of very cold feet.

The unfortunate, ironic reality: If she did press ahead, much of the opposition would fall away and the polls would likely turn in the policy’s favor. The experience of other global cities that have adopted this method — particularly London and Stockholm — teaches this lesson: The very people most frustrated with the looming charges — people who drive or want to drive into Manhattan — tend to feel the most immediate benefits of the system. An underrated truth about congestion pricing is that it works. It reduces congestion. And congestion is very annoying to people driving on the roads.

To date, that’s been obscured by the debate we’ve been having. In New York, congestion pricing has been pitched as a way to help transit riders — and in the most aggressive articulations, as purposeful punishment of the smaller number of people driving into Manhattan. But the distinctive reason for adopting congestion pricing is to support freer flowing traffic across the region, with substantial benefits for, well, the very folks currently aggrieved about congestion pricing. This wouldn’t just be a boon to straphangers and to the MTA’s budget; it’s actually better for most drivers.

On the very first day of the Stockholm pilot, according to contemporaneous accounts, traffic on the city’s major inner roads “simply disappeared.”


In the Swedish capital of 2 million people, road pricing was adopted in its central business district in 2006. The policy was rolled out on a pilot basis from January to July 2006. Before it was secured permanently, citizens had a chance to vote on its future via referendum. 

Before the pilot launched, the plan was met with great skepticism from the left and the right. (The national Swedish Green Party notably objected to the plan and demanded the pilot phase.) On the eve of launch, fewer than 40% of Stockholm residents supported the plan, with support for people who would pay the fee often polling below 20%. In preparation for the launch, Stockholm authorities invested in increased bus service and new park and ride facilities. 

But on the very first day of the pilot, according to contemporaneous accounts, traffic on Stockholm’s major inner roads “simply disappeared.” Traffic volumes dropped 20% as a critical mass of people switched the timing of their trips or opted to take the train, leaving the cars and buses remaining on the road moving briskly and smoothly. Stockholm tabloids that had slammed the plan in the run-up began publishing enthusiastic stories showing before and after photos of formerly crowded rush hour roads now flowing freely.

Popular support surged. After the pilot expired, a referendum to make the program permanent passed in 2007, and popular support for the program rose to over 65%, with majority support even from Stockholm- region residents who “often” paid the charge to drive in. 

On launch, traffic across London dropped an average of 30%, transit ridership increased and air quality improved. By April 2003, the percentage of people who believed that the congestion charge would not reduce traffic had dropped more than half to 15%.


London’s implementation followed a similar arc. In February 2003, London moved forward with a congestion charge, which had been a centerpiece of Ken Livingstone’s campaign for mayor in 2000. The mayor also served as the chairman of the newly-formed Transport for London (TfL), which had consolidated London’s rail networks, bus operations, streets and parking policy under a single unified entity. 

As happened in Stockholm, Livingstone and TfL were able to synchronize the launch of the program with improved alternatives and a clear roadmap for further improvements. They ran new buses and expanded dedicated bus lanes, and dedicated transit investment to improving frequency of service, while also making plans for larger regional transit projects. 

Before going into effect, the congestion charge was opposed by a plurality of Londoners (38% supported, 43% opposed). Contemporaneous polling, as pointed out in recent research by Natalie Yang of Columbia, suggests a reason behind some of that opposition: Many Londoners did not think that congestion pricing would actually reduce congestion. Prior to the charge going into effect in February 2003, almost 36% of Londoners said they “disagreed” that a congestion charge would reduce traffic. 

But on launch, traffic across London dropped an average of 30%, transit ridership increased and air quality improved. By April 2003, the percentage of people who believed that the congestion charge would not reduce traffic had dropped more than half to 15%. Overall support for the program rose to 50%.

The medium and longer-term dynamics of London’s system show how a new congestion charge can adapt in the years after launch. After substantial initial congestion benefits, traffic crept back to pre-pricing levels. Vehicles with exemptions surged into freer-flowing streets; the number of for-hire vehicles, initially exempt from the charge, increased with the introduction of app-based vehicle services such as Uber and Lyft; London and TfL deliberately reallocated more of London’s road space to pedestrian zones, bus lanes and an expanded bike network. 

New charges have been adopted targeting dirtier diesel vehicles, and Londoners have adapted to the new reality of faster buses, better transit service and safer streets. But the short-term political story was clear: The charge went into effect, traffic improved and skeptics became believers.

The future of New York’s congestion pricing program is currently in jeopardy. Hochul has insisted that this pause is not a full cancellation, but skepticism abounds. 

Controversial policy, which experts have evidence can provide real improvements, but for which there is widespread public skepticism, requires courage and leadership and good planning to advance. Trust in government, poisonously eroded in recent years, will be rebuilt not with talk, but by acting with confidence, demonstrating results and having the humility to adjust if changes are needed. 

In this instance, Stockholm and London pave a path. The way to make congestion pricing more politically palatable wasn’t to delay it, it was to switch it on.