System eases traffic's toll on Stockholm

A new road toll system that uses radio frequency identification transponders and cameras has reduced traffic in Sweden’s capital by 25 percent, according to the prime contractor that designed, implemented and operates the system.

In the first month of an approximately seven-month trial, IBM officials said 100,000 fewer vehicles traveled on Stockholm’s roads during peak business hours, and the number of daily mass transit riders has increased by 40,000. City officials had increased the mass transit system’s capacity in anticipation of more riders.

Since Jan. 3, Stockholm has been testing a congestion or value pricing system, which is an approach to discourage motorists from making trips during certain times into the city to reduce traffic and pollution. Similar systems are used in London and Singapore.

Motorists entering and leaving Stockholm between 6:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., Monday through Friday are charged $1.30 to $2.55 depending on the time, but the maximum charge is $7.60 per day. However, taxis, foreign-registered cars and environmentally friendly vehicles are exempt from the system.

Motorists can equip their vehicles with a RFID transponder that automatically deducts the appropriate fee at any of the 18 entry points into the city, similar to the electronic toll collection system in the United States, said Todd Ramsey, general manager of IBM’s Global Government Industry. In Stockholm, those 18 entry points have 39 charging points or stations.

But the system also uses cameras along city routes if a motorist doesn’t have a transponder. The cameras photograph a car’s license plate, which is matched to the registered owner in the motor vehicle database and then the owner is billed. Ramsey said the system has multiple cameras that can photograph various angles of a license plate and a vehicle’s make and model to ensure accuracy and correct billing.

“The license plate recognition, though, requires you to, after the fact, pay either on the Internet or through a couple of other places you can go see what your records are,” he said.

In Singapore, officials require vehicles to be equipped with RFID transponders or they won’t be allowed into the main business district, Ramsey said. London's system uses only cameras to identify and bill drivers. In both cities, traffic congestion has eased.

Ramsey also said the system did not cost Stockholm officials any money, and that IBM recoups a percentage of what motorists are charged. After the trial period ends this summer, the city’s residents will vote in a nonbinding referendum on whether to make the toll system permanent, but the city council has the final word, he said.

Although they sound like good ideas, such systems aren't always welcome. In Edinburgh, Scotland, a congestion pricing system was defeated a year ago following a referendum.

In the United States, motorists in some cities and regions pay tolls for access to some highways and roads, money that is largely used to fund the upkeep of the roads. But Ramsey said there has been some interest in using similar congestion pricing systems.

“In general, we’ve seen a fair number of articles on the West Coast – California, Oregon and state of Washington – where people are…interested in changing the traffic patterns,” he said. “They’d like to shift to other modes of transportation and they’d like to shift the charges to the people who are using it in lieu of raising the gas tax. But there’s no legislature considering authorizing doing this, at this point.”

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