Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
It’s just the beginning of a major anti-pollution effort.
London is going to make life a lot harder for drivers of heavily polluting vehicles—by digging into their pockets. Starting in 2017, choosing to drive an old fume-belcher into the city core will cost a lot more, more than an entrée in a good London restaurant. Drivers of vehicles that don’t meet Euro 4 emission standards (in practice, most vehicles manufactured before 2005) will have to pay an extra £10 ($13) to enter London’s Congestion Charge Zone. That’s slapped on top of the existing £11.50 ($15) charge for all vehicles, to bring the combined charge to £21.50 ($28). For buses and other larger vehicles, the charge will reach up to £1,000 ($1,300).
Bear in mind that with the pound currently in a free fall, these charges will hit Brits’ purses a little more heavily than their dollar equivalents suggest. Any driver paying that kind of money more than very occasionally is surely going to end up leaving their old boneshaker at home or invest in a cleaner vehicle.
Paris has also clamped down on heavily polluting vehicles recently—so far, rather harder than London. On July 1, Paris banned all cars built before 1997 from driving in the city on workdays. Paris’ and London’s different approaches illuminate their countries’ divergent political cultures: Where Paris bans, London charges.
London’s move is nonetheless far from the only measure currently planned to improve London’s abysmal air quality. Mayor Sadiq Khan has already promised a proper pollution early-warning system that could raise public awareness and even save a few people from serious illness. As a short-term measure, the city will also create new bus corridors, thoroughfares with currently higher-than-average pollution that will be earmarked for new, cleaner buses that will ultimately be rolled out across London.
This is all small beer compared to the city’s long-planned Ultra Low Emissions Zone effort, which will now arrive in 2019, a year earlier than scheduled. This controlled area will initially be a far more stringent version of the existing Congestion Charge Zone. Drivers of any vehicle that doesn’t meet ultra-low-emissions standards will have to pay a sizeable fee on top of the existing congestion charges—a massive £650 ($845) for cars and motorbikes (doubled if payment isn’t made within four days) and £500 ($647) for larger vehicles (again, doubled after a fortnight’s non-payment). In 2020, this zone will be expanded yet further. For cars, it will cover all of London within its two inner beltways (the so-called North and South Circulars), while for trucks and buses it will cover the city’s entire area.
Looked at frankly, this is more than a charge. The total cost is so high that it makes more sense to read it as a fine, a penalty designed to force drivers out of polluting vehicles for good. Again, the London approach is to price people out of harmful behaviors rather than directly stigmatize them as offenses, but the effect will probably be no less dramatic. London’s air may still have a lethal, fudge-colored tinge to it, but the vehicles contributing the worst of this fug could soon be on their way to the scrapheap.