With the re-emergence of COVID-19 in NZ we’ve once again seen some commentators calling for us to follow the Swedish model of letting the virus into the community in a bid for herd immunity. This has come about despite all the evidence so far pointing to them having achieved worse health and economic outcomes than those that have taken a more cautious approach, such as their neighbours and of course us.
At this point I’ll leave the health debate to the experts but it did get me thinking about how there are a number of other areas of policy in Sweden that we should consider emulating. Let’s have a look at some of those.
National Transport Plan
Responding to climate change is one of the key reforms of the Swedish government with one of their goals being to become a ‘fossil-free pioneer’. This applies across government portfolios and as we know from locally, transport will play a big part of this.
In 2018, the country adopted the SEK 700 billion (NZ $119b) National Transport System Plan for 2018-2029.
“We are now making the largest investment in railway of modern times. Investments in building our society and building Sweden strong and sustainable, we take precedence over tax cuts. Sweden must have a modern railway network, with trains that run on time throughout the country,” says Minister for Infrastructure Tomas Eneroth.
The new national plan is a step towards the transition to a fossil-free welfare state an increase in housing construction and improved conditions for business.
“Now we finally prioritise people who choose climate-smart transport. We make this investment so that the trains can run on time throughout the country and more people can commute sustainably,” says Minister for International Development Cooperation and Climate and Deputy Prime Minister Isabella Lövin.
Of that SEK 700 billion
- SEK 125 billion ($21.3b) for operation and maintenance of state-owned railways
- SEK 164 billion ($27.8b) for operation and maintenance of state-owned roads
- SEK 333.5 billion ($56.7b) for the development of the transport system
Rail is playing a significant role in the plan with goals to significantly increase the use of it for both passengers and freight. Within that fund for development of the transport system, about 58% is allocated to national projects that cost more than SEK 100 million ($9.6m). Of those projects, about 77% are railway projects with the total amount being spent about 32% up on previous plans. Meanwhile the funding for the operation and maintenance of the network represents a 47% increase.
One big part of that rail investment is to build three new high-speed lines to increase capacity and work towards linking up their three largest urban cities of Stockholm, Malmö and Gothenburg. Of note, Stockholm to Malmö is about the same distance as Auckland to Wellington. High-speed rail doesn’t come cheap though and as an example, the blue line is about 160km and won’t be finished till 2035 (outside the timeframe of this plan) at a total cost of over $9 billion.
The actual amount that will be spent on rail is likely to be even higher as it includes a few funding items that will be used by local authorities to support housing and other urban plans. For example:
- SEK 4 billion ($680m) for co-financing housing infrastructure in the metropolitan regions
There are several public transport objects in the three metropolitan regions, for example light railways, railways, underground railways, cable cars and Bus Rapid Transit, and large numbers of new cycle paths. The municipalities for their part have committed to construct a total of 193,130 housing units.
- SEK 12 billion ($2b) towards urban environment agreements.
The Government has set aside a total of SEK 12 billion during the plan period for urban environment agreements. This means that central government will co-finance municipal and regional investments in infrastructure for public transport and cycling. There is no fixed allocation between the modes of transport, but it can be mentioned that in the last round almost half of the distributed funds went to the cycling measures and half to the public transport measures.
There’s a bit more information on how the National Transport Plan is being implemented from 2019-24 from what appears to be the equivalent of Waka Kotahi NZTA, called Trafikverket, The Swedish Transport Administration.
Our current government has started to invest more in rail but funding on large roading projects still dominates our transport spend. Even just some slightly higher-speed rail between a few of our larger centres would be nice, likewise would be focusing urban investments on public transport and cycling.
One key policy from Sweden we have (only recently) adopted is Vision Zero. In fact Vision Zero actually started in Sweden in 1995 and adopted nationwide in 1997 and since that time the number of deaths on the road have more than halved. In 2019 they had 223 deaths, a rate of 2.2 per 100,000 people compared to our 350 deaths at a rate of 7 per 100 people. Looking at other measures, we also die at about twice the rate per 100,000 vehicles and per billion kms travelled.
They’ve achieved some good outcomes but it’s not enough for them and they are continuing to push to further lower the amount of death and serious injury on their roads
Stockholm is a poster child for the use of congestion charging, both for being one of the few cities in the world to have a congestion charge but also because they introduced it as a trial in 2006 before implementing it permanently in 2007. The charge is variable based on the time of day and if you cordon around central Stockholm. Prices vary from $0, to just under $2 during the middle of the day and nearly $6 at peak times and resulted in a significant reduction in vehicles in the city.
As similar scheme was introduced in Gothenburg in 2013.
A congestion charge is something that has been discussed for quite some time. Both major political parties are at least not hostile to the idea but it seems nobody really wants hit the go button on it. We should perhaps be aiming to introduce it in about 2024 when the likes of the CRL are open, the full Eastern Busway is complete (or close to it) and other PT improvements, such as to the Northwest, have been made to make the PT network more viable.
Strong urban transport
One of the things that has allowed things like the congestion charge is that Stockholm in particular has a very strong PT network. Stockholm itself shares a lot of similarities with Auckland being a city with many geographic boundaries and spread across 14 islands. It is a bit bigger than Auckland though and the wider metro area is home to nearly 2.4 million people. Rail forms a strong backbone to the PT network and consists of a mix of metro, commuter rail and light rail.
The metro network alone has 100 stations across three lines, although due to the branches there are seven different service patterns. I don’t have total annual usage but In peak use months (winter) it is carrying almost 1.3 million trips a day. The metro is also home to some of the most visually impressive stations in the world, such as Rådhuset Station below.
They get another 368k trips a day on the commuter rail lines that extend past the main urban area and about 200k on some light rail lines. Add in over 1.1 million trips on buses and there can be over 3 million tips a day across the PT network. By comparison, during busy months our rail network did about 80k trips a day prior to COVID while our entire PT network hit 350k trips a day.
With so many trips on the PT network, it’s not going to be surprising to hear that across the entire metro area, public transport modeshare is about 37% of trips with cars making up only a slightly larger 39% with Walking and Cycling making up 24%.
Auckland is only really starting out on our rapid transit journey and we’ve got much to build but cities like Stockholm give us both inspiration and confirmation that we can get strong uptake of PT. What we do need though is to focus on getting that rapid transit network built faster.
Low Emissions Zones
The government have allowed municipalities to introduce low emission zones banning certain vehicles from selected areas and with them able to be introduced from the start of this year.
Air pollution causes cancer as well as lung disease, cardiovascular disease and premature death. Not least children’s health is adversely affected. The absolutely dominant source of nitrogen oxides in the urban environment is road traffic. Municipalities are therefore being given a powerful tool with which to tackle air pollution. Municipalities will decide themselves whether and where low emission zones should be applied.
“Children’s right to breathe clean air takes priority over the right to drive all kinds of cars on every single street. We are now giving the municipalities the powerful tool they have long been requesting so that they can tackle hazardous air pollution,” says Minister for the Environment Karolina Skog
Like some other countries, this is just one step and they’re going to go further. They will be banning petrol or diesel cars from being sold after 2030.
These are probably only just scratching the surface and I’m sure there’s mean other things that could be included here.
I wonder if those same commentators wanting us to mimic the Swedish COVID response will be at the vanguard of calling us to copy their transport policies too?