Germà Bel: “Barcelona is a clear candidate to implement congestion charging to cut the number of vehicles driving into the city center”

The congestion charge is a mechanism to reduce traffic congestion and pollution from private vehicles. Although it is a very unpopular measure among drivers, European cities such as London, Stockholm and Milan have already implemented it. In these cases, users of private cars must pay a toll to enter the urban centre at rush hours. With the Spanish local elections around the corner, the debate to introduce a congestion charge in Barcelona is back on the table.

We have spoken to the researcher at the UB School of Economics Germà Bel about the convenience of implementing such a measure in Barcelona. Germà Bel, together with Jordi Rosell, recently published the article “The impact of socioeconomic characteristics on CO2 emissions associated with urban mobility: Inequality across individuals” in the scientific journal Energy Economics, reaching valuable conclusions about the progressivity of a potential congestion charge in Barcelona.

The problem of traffic congestion together with pollution has led some political parties to suggest a congestion charge in Barcelona. Do you have a positive outlook on a potential congestion charge in Barcelona?

The levels of pollutant emissions in Barcelona are high. Private transit is –by far– the largest responsible of such contamination. Transit congestion levels in the city are on the rise, thus aggravating the pollution problem, and its consequences in health conditions, etc. Indeed, Barcelona is a clear candidate to implement congestion charging.

By 2020, the circulation of the most polluting cars will be banned in Barcelona. Will this not help to reduce congestion?

This measure will be only partially effective, as it will trigger replacement of cars. There is some knowledge that policies based on prohibitions, unless they are radical and absolute, tend to have low effectiveness, while they may have tremendous welfare costs.

A congestion charge would be a rather unpopular measure among drivers.

The congestion charge, of course, will not be popular among private vehicle drivers who use private vehicles for their commuting in the daily hours in which congestion charge applies. Congestion charges tend to be effective on working days, between 6:00 and 7:00 in the morning until about 18:00 to 19:00 in the evening (i.e. London and Stockholm). Those using private vehicle outside congestion schedule (night time and weekends) would not be negatively affected. Furthermore, a fraction of the affected drivers could be compensated with better supply of alternative public transportation.

Why do you think that a congestion charge has not yet been implemented in Barcelona? Is it simply a question of lack of political courage?        

In my opinion, a congestion charge has not even been debated in Barcelona so far because of a mix of political populism and obsession with a single project: the Tramway connection. Indeed, the fact that most of current governments in Barcelona and its metro area are extremely conservative, and are not keen to risky policy innovations that may provoke an electoral backslash. In this regard, they see congestion charging as one of such dangerous innovations.

Could a congestion charge harm mainly drivers with a lower level of income?

Absolutely not. It’s quite the contrary. Households that use private car for daily commuting in the Barcelona Metro Area exist in all segments of income and wealth. But the proportion of such commuters is very low in the least affluent segments of population, as compared with the top segments of income, where frequency of private vehicle to enter the central city is close to 90% of households.  All in all, two out of three households using private vehicle to enter the central city have income above the average. Therefore, a congestion charge could have progressive effects with respect to income distribution, particularly if net revenues are used to improve public transportation to enter the central city, mostly used by low income families.

Do you have any proposal on what the price of this congestion charge should be?

I do not think anybody has –as of now- good enough information on price elasticity of commuters and technological costs to bear. Also, there has not been a public debate on what targets should be established for reduction of traffic volume and pollution abatement. This should be known before tacking decisions on prices. This said, my intuition is that a congestion charge would be much lower than in London, and could be quite similar to Stockholm. In that city, congestion charges operate Monday to Friday between 06.00 and 18.29; and do not operate in weekends, holidays and July). Within the operating hours, minimum price is €1.00 (9:30-14:59) and maximum price is €3.25 (7:30-8:29 and 16:00-17:29). Note also that there is a maximum daily amount that can be charged to a vehicle: €5.6.

The fight against traffic congestion also requires collective transport alternatives. What infrastructures or policies should be promoted in this regard?

Following the logic of the introduction of a congestion charging policy, there are two most important measures to be taken. One of them, desperately needed with or without congestion charging introduction, is investment in regional railway (wide metro region), of which the Spanish central Government is –by far– the key responsible. The second one, is the reinforcement of collective transport penetration to the central area of the city, and this is even more important if a congestion charge is implemented.

Is the tramway along Diagonal Avenue a good collective transport alternative?

The obsession with this project has damaged the mobility and environmental policy in the last years. And a big mistake is at its basis: the main problem that mobility, pollution and health related consequences confront in Barcelona is not that of the traffic in Diagonal Avenue, but the penetration of traffic in all the central areas of the city. So, the first and foremost priority is to significantly reduce the amount of private vehicles that enter the city of Barcelona. This is why congestion charging must be given priority.

And what about connecting the tramway?

After implementing congestion charging, the landscape of private transit will change in different corridors of the central city, and Diagonal Avenue will be one of these. At this point, one should take into account that density of demand for the tramway connection is not large enough to ensure social welfare improvement until well into the 2030, according even of numbers in studies supporting that project.  Therefore, any wise policymaker would implement first the main policy (congestion charging), then evaluate effects, and rescale/revise accordingly other more partial projects, such as tramway connection. In the meanwhile, easy-to-rectify measures to alleviate conditions in the Diagonal could be implemented.

What conclusions driven from the article “The impact of socioeconomic characteristics on CO2 emissions associated with urban mobility: Inequality across individuals” shall we incorporate into the debate about a potential congestion charge in Barcelona?

Two are most important. One is that congestion charging in Barcelona would have progressive results with respect to income distribution, and that could be further enhanced if net revenues are applied to improve collective transportation.

Another is of methodological character. Empirically analyzing and evaluating policies often prove counterintuitive results, which is of paramount importance for public policy design and implementation. Institutions should facilitate, even promote, public availability of data. In that way social and civil control on institutional action can be enhanced, thus improving democracy and policymaking.

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