20.1 Changing frames of mobility through radical policy interventions? The Stockholm congestion tax

Tim Richardson , Development and Planning, Aalborg University, Aalborg East, Denmark
Karolina Isaksson , Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute, Linköping, Sweden
Anders Gullberg , Stockholm Research Institute, Stockholm, Sweden
The introduction of a congestion tax was a significant moment in the management of mobility in Stockholm. This paper critically examines this apparent consensus on confronting car based mobility, by analysing how mobility was framed at key stages in policy making, from the 1970s through to the trial in 2006 and subsequent implementation. Changing transport objectives are compared, and winners and losers are traced in relation to motility and environmental quality. The paper argues that a car-based automobility frame survives, even in the implementation of a radical policy of congestion taxation.
At a time when the future direction of strategic management of mobility is unclear, and where serious moral and political questions exist about whether and how radical measures to control car use can or should be introduced in different settings, it becomes important to examine closely the ways in which such controversial measures surface within strategy making processes, and how they are promoted, resisted, reshaped and ultimately institutionalised or, perhaps, silenced.
The language of sustainable mobility has become widespread in policy and academic environments, but the concept remains diffuse. Recent attempts have been made to theorise a paradigm of sustainable mobility (Banister 2008). The proposed paradigm sets out four key principles for sustainable mobility, which include intervention in the regulation and pricing of transport ‘so that the external costs of transport should be reflected in the actual costs of travel through higher fuel prices or through some form of road pricing’ (Banister 2008, p.78-79). Citing the case of congestion charging in London, which he describes as ‘the most radical transport policy that has been introduced in the UK in the last 20 years... a watershed in policy action’ (Banister 2008, p.77), Banister argues that pragmatism will be necessary to implement such controversial schemes: ‘A balance must be struck between the desired scheme and an acceptable scheme. The potential risk is substantial, but such choices have to be made if radical sustainable mobility polices are to be introduced at all’ (Banister 2008, p.77).
This paper is motivated by the concern that even such flagship policies for urban traffic management are often ambivalent about tackling car dependence. Counter-intuitively, even policies with the strongest potential to control car use, and here we concentrate on urban congestion charging, are not necessarily designed to achieve sustainability goals, and the more radical possibilities of these interventions are often weakened during implementation (Banister, 2003).
This paper pursues this line of inquiry, focusing explicitly on the dominant frames of mobility in policy making in the city of Stockholm, Sweden, over a period of four decades. In Stockholm, the debate about how to address the problems related to private car use have continued for more than four decades, but attempts to build agreements have often failed. Therefore, the introduction of a congestion tax was a significant moment of apparent consensus in the management of mobility in Stockholm. After several decades of lobbying and political conflict, including a proposed “district charge” in the 1980s, and the Dennis Package in the early 1990s, the tax was introduced as a trial in 2006, consented to by citizens through a referendum, and then adopted permanently in the summer of 2007, to international acclaim. Except from a few remaining opponents like the chamber of commerce, there is now an apparent unity on congestion taxation as an effective measure for addressing the problems caused by the car in the city.
The aim of this paper is to critically examine the place of the car in successive framings of mobility manifested in policy schemes to deal with congestion and other traffic-related problems in the city of Stockholm since the 1970s. Focusing on policy debates on policy measures for congestion reduction, we explore how the different frames of mobility opened up new possibilities for action in this complex urban governance setting. Central to the analysis is the question of how actors sought to make the difficult choices and trade-offs implicit in seeking to manage urban mobility. We reflect on the potential consequences of different framings in terms of the associated patterns of mobility, motility and environmental qualities. Thus what is in focus is how the framing of personal mobility by the private car shifted in successive dominant frames. We also seek to show how particular power relations, at different times, played a part in the production of each frame. Overall, we attempt to trace how the successive debates over congestion taxation managed difficult questions about future urban mobility, and how the role of the car was treated in this.
The paper sets out an approach for analysing frames of mobility. This is followed by presentation of the results of the analysis of frames of mobility, from early political debates about how to control access by car to the city of Stockholm in the 1970s and 1980s, to the Dennis Package in the 1990s, the congestion tax trial in 2006 and the adopted congestion tax scheme in 2007. This leads to a concluding discussion of how controversial and contested aspects of urban mobility, in particular the role of the private car, were managed over time.