TCS Daily

New York's Stockholm Syndrome

By Johan Wennstrom - November 28, 2005 12:00 AM

The New York Times recently published some disturbing news. The Big Apple's major business association, the Partnership for New York City, is pushing for a congestion charge on traffic in Manhattan, and City Hall is willing to consider it. Is this really something for the Capital of the World? Manhattan is still recovering from 9/11. This is perhaps the worst time to carry through a system that would be a burden to New Yorkers.

It is not surprising that the business community of New York supports the notion, since a congestion charge might help to improve accessibility in the city by cutting down on traffic. Supporters also believe it will cut down on exhaust and thus benefit the environment. But the negative consequences of a congestion charge are numerous, as international experience clearly shows.

In London, where a charge is already part of commuters' lives, traffic in the inner city has indeed gone down. But the queues at the city's approaches and on outer roads have increased, say drivers interviewed by the UK Commission for Integrated Transport. Traffic within the city zone is directed elsewhere, which makes journey times longer for those who wish to avoid the city and drive around London. And the London Chamber of Commerce speaks of the charge as a "substantial and negative" blow to retailers. According to a survey conducted by the London Chamber, trade has dropped off considerably. Three quarters of survey respondents "had suffered a fall in year-on-year sales", which roughly half of respondents "all or mostly" blamed on the congestion charge. These representatives of London's business community also said that the controversial traffic reform had not increased their productivity. Add to that, a third of small businesses are thinking of moving, which is a direct effect of the fact that consumers' freedom of movement is infringed by the car tolls.

Following London's example is Stockholm, which does not begin its trial with congestion charges until January of next year. But already, merchants are worried about the economic consequences. Bigger malls, outside the city centre, will benefit while trade in the heart of Stockholm can expect a downturn. It is not only a blow to those merchants, but also to the dynamic inner city life.

Everyone in the Swedish capital -- except the coalition of greens and socialists who concocted the plan -- expects traffic chaos when the tolls are raised. For, unlike the City of London, Stockholm's municipal government is not committed to expanding its public transport system. The congestion charge is an additional tax that is going to make the lives of the most overtaxed people in the world, namely the people of Stockholm, even harder.

It looks as if the Partnership wants to adopt some parts of the Stockholm model, for example the video cameras capturing license plates. Hanging over the main approaches to Stockholm, they look off-putting, and give visitors the impression of a besieged city, protected by a great wall made up of tariffs. I have always felt welcome coming into Manhattan, and I do hope that the newly re-elected Mayor Mike Bloomberg and the business leaders of New York City don't want to change that.

On the eve of Bloomberg's re-election, he proclaimed that New York is back in business after the World Trade Center attacks. Why make it harder for the city to recover by imposing a toll system which, if following the international pattern, will only hurt merchants and consumers alike?

An occasional TCS contributor, Johan Wennström is a writer for the Swedish pro-market organization Captus.


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