diesel ban

German traffic policy needs congestion charges, tolls

Congestion Charging
Would it kill you to take the bus? Source: Picture Alliance

With German cities now legally allowed to ban diesel cars from urban areas to reduce pollution, lawmakers are scrambling for ways to appease driving constituents. Politicians in Singapore, Sweden and the UK may have the answers: Singapore wants to launch a satellite-based toll system in 2021 to bill drivers by kilometer and minute, and Sweden and London already charge drivers who want to enter urban areas a premium at peak times.

“In terms of traffic policy, Germany is stuck in the age of Adenauer,” says Andreas Knie, a mobility analyst at Berlin Thinktank InnoZ. Konrad Adenauer was the first post-war chancellor and ran West Germany from 1949 until 1963, when no one was worried about pollution. But Germany is now facing driving bans and the only answer Berlin has provided is a €1-billion joint fund with automakers to improve traffic management, replace diesel buses with zero-emission models and promote battery-charging networks.

While Singapore’s proposal would force drivers to pay for the exact amount of infrastructure they use and provide compensation for their pollution, Stockholm, Gothenburg and London prefer to instead provide financial incentive to not drive. Stockholm’s congestion charge, introduced permanently in 2007, levies €3.50 to enter the center during rush hour and just €1.10 between 9.30 a.m. and 3 p.m. London charges £10 (€11.33) from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Both have proven effective in reducing traffic.

Trängselskatt is Swedish for congestion charge. Gesundheit! Source: Swedish Transport Authority

Such tolls would not only improve air quality but also help Berlin replace the portion of the €40 billion in gas taxes it will lose as electric cars gain in popularity – Singapore already brings in €200 million on its current tolls. “The perfect toll system calculates a charge for every journey for the exact amount of CO2 and nitrogen oxide emitted,” says Mr. Knie.

Germany lacks the political courage to embrace innovative traffic reduction schemes even though it already has an effective satellite-based toll system for trucks, introduced back in 2005. The toll levels currently vary between 8 and 22 cents per kilometer depending on the truck’s emissions and the number of its axles. The system raises almost €5 billion per year.

The technical means for precise toll collection are readily available and already being used. Private sector car-sharing companies like Daimler’s Car2Go and BMW’s DriveNow record every minute and kilometer their cars are used, and charge more per minute for the bigger, more gas-guzzling cars in their fleets. A Smart car costs 26 cents a minute while a Mercedes SUV costs 34 cents.

Europe currently has 24 different toll systems.

But Germany is unlikely to introduce road pricing anytime soon. Even the Greens haven’t made up their minds on whether they’re in favor of it. The pro-business Free Democrats are against it because they regard mobility as a “fundamental right,” said Oliver Luksic, their transport policy spokesman. A city road toll, he said, discriminates against pensioners and the poor.

The “grand coalition” currently being formed in Berlin between Chancellor Angela Merkel and the center-left Social Democrats only plans to extend the truck toll from motorways to all national highways.

Meanwhile the European Commission has proposed introducing an EU-wide toll that applies the automatic collection system used for trucks to all other vehicles, taking their emissions into account. Greener cars such as hybrids would pay less and electric cars would get a 75 percent discount. But Europe currently has 24 different toll systems. The EC wants to harmonize the systems by 2027 but doesn’t have the power to do so. Toll collection is up to the national member states.

This article was originally published in WirtschaftsWoche, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. To contact the authors:  christian.schlesiger@wiwo.de 

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