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.
A new Ultra Low Emissions Zone is expected to affect more than 60,000 vehicles in central London—and it’s just the start of something much bigger.
The streets of central London are about to have some of the toughest anti-pollution measures in any major city.
On Monday, the city’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone takes effect, charging £12.50 ($16.40) to anyone who enters it driving a gas-powered car that’s built before 2006. That charge will be placed on top of the existing congestion charge of £11.50 ($15.10), meaning drivers of older vehicles will have to pay a substantial £24 ($31.50) for every day they drive into the zone.
And that’s not all. The rules will be even more stringent for diesel vehicles, and for trucks and private buses that use either diesel or gas. Any diesel-fueled car built before 2015 will have to pay the charge, while buses and trucks built before 2015 will have to pay £100 ($131.30). The charges will essentially make driving older, more polluting vehicles financially unviable on a regular basis. In other words, they’re so high that they’re effectively a soft ban—one that Transport for London predicts will affect up to 40,000 cars, 19,000 vans, 2,000 trucks, and 700 private buses.
What makes these plans even more striking is that the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) is only the beginning. The Central London charge is just the first stage in a staggered, two-step plan—and it will likely prove far less controversial than what’s to follow.
The Central London ULEZ won’t be controversy-free, but it will possibly have a smoother introduction because it builds on charges already in place. Covering the area of London’s current Congestion Charge Zone, the ULEZ inaugurated on Monday will operate in a part of the city that London drivers have been paying to enter since 2003. This makes the first step a little easier, not least because the technology for enforcement is already in place. Cameras along the zone’s perimeter check license plates against data on who has paid the charge, and fines are sent out to any vehicle required to pay that hasn’t done so within a week. This charge has already had a major effect on London’s driving habits, reducing the number of private vehicles on London’s roads so that they now form a minority portion of the on-road fleet as a whole.
It still hasn’t been enough. The congestion charge hasn’t yet been effective in deterring commercial vehicles. Thanks to a rise in online shopping and ride-hailing services, these vehicles have multiplied in central London’s streets to the point that congestion has once again exceeded pre-congestion charge levels. Adding a further charge for the most-polluting vehicles in Central London isn’t guaranteed to reduce congestion, but it could well provide financial pressure on businesses to ensure that the vehicles they use are cleaner and thus less damaging to citizens’ health.
Serious pollution in London is not confined to the city center, however. Some of the most unhealthy spots in the city lie outside the new ULEZ, in areas that are heavily residential. And even with the new stringent charges, the new zone covers a far lesser proportion of London’s area than Stockholm’s congestion charge zone, which covers two-thirds of the city. Paris’s ban on polluting vehicles, meanwhile, covers all of the city within the Périphérique beltway, an area that is home to 2.2 million people. To really help Londoners breathe more easily, the city has to go much further than Monday’s plan.
The good news is that it’s going to. In 2021, the ULEZ will be extended out to the North and South Circular roads, inner beltways whose borders contain most of Greater London’s population. It will then (unless plans elsewhere are announced in the interim) become the largest, most-heavily populated controlled driving zone in the world.
That’s impressive, but it could be politically complicated. Drivers of older cars may have already stopped driving into inner London, and thus won’t necessarily notice the change brought about by the ULEZ. The extended zone in 2021, however, will cover a huge number of people’s homes, including areas of low-density housing where car ownership and use is fairly common. In a city where the London-based national media can be exceedingly hostile to any driving restrictions, and where residents of the outer boroughs are less like to vote for Mayor Sadiq Khan, this may prove controversial, especially as the cost of replacing older vehicles for new ones will disproportionately affect lower-income drivers.
Aware of this, Mayor Khan is proposing some measures to ease the transition. Later this year, the city will launch a £25 million ($32.8 million) fund to help lower-income Londoners replace their older cars with newer, cleaner vehicles. Owners of classic cars will be exempt, because they already pay a historic vehicles tax, while residents in the Central London ULEZ will be able to apply for a 100-percent exemption until autumn 2021. Even with these softeners, London City Hall could still be squaring up a for a fight.
The reasons that it should persevere are still glaring. London’s air quality is improving slightly, but 2 million citizens still live in areas with toxic air. Across England, asthma deaths have risen sharply, while new research released this spring has found that pollution-related deaths in Europe are, at 800,000 annually, double the rate previously assumed.
This growing international awareness has been reinforced locally by alarming research that found that air pollution in London is stunting children’s lung capacity. The public is more and more conscious of the problem, thanks in part to the ongoing, widely-covered case of 7-year-old Londoner Ella Kissi-Debrah, who died following multiple asthma attacks in 2013 and whose mother has fought successfully for a second inquest to determine if her death was directly related to pollution.
The ULEZ may make things complicated for drivers, and as the scheme expands, it may well face resistance. By reducing pollution, it will nonetheless save lives—possibly quite a few.