Zoning in on air pollution: low emission zones to tackle our dangerously dirty air

Image by Mike Malone

At the start of this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that air pollution posed the greatest threat to global environmental health in 2019. The UN’s public health agency estimates that nine out of ten people worldwide breathe polluted air every day.

Most of the pollutants in our air today come from traffic. Nitrogen dioxide and microscopically small particles emitted by motor vehicles can penetrate respiratory and circulatory systems, heightening the risks of heart attacks, lung cancer and respiratory conditions.

In the UK, poor air quality is estimated to cause the early deaths of 40-50,000 people each year, while in London 9,500 are believed to have died prematurely in 2010 due to air pollution.

The road to cleaner air

Across Europe, national and local authorities have been responding to the health risks posed by air pollution with measures to tackle emissions from vehicles. Many have introduced low emission zones (also known as clean air zones). These regulate vehicles with higher emissions, banning the most polluting vehicles from entering the zone and requiring them to pay a fee if they enter the area.

In various countries, low emission zones have different rules according to the type of vehicle and whether it meets EU emissions standards. In Germany, for example, there is a national framework of low emission zones affecting all motor vehicles except motorcycles. In Denmark, a similar framework applies to all diesel-powered vehicles above 3.5 tonnes. In Paris, all vehicles entering the low emission zone are required to display a sticker according to their emissions standards. The most heavily polluting vehicles are not allowed in. In addition, any vehicle can be refused entrance to the city centre in response to high levels of pollution on a given day.

A growing number of UK cities, such as Leeds and Birmingham have been working on the introduction of low emission zones, and some have already been implemented in Norwich, Oxford and Brighton.

In Scotland, the Scottish Government plans to create low emissions zones in the country’s four biggest cities by 2020, and the first of these is now up and running in Glasgow. The first phase was launched in January, targeting buses, which are among the most polluting vehicles. Glasgow’s biggest bus operator, First Bus, has purchased 75 new buses fitted with low emissions systems complying with the EU’s Euro VI standards. The scheme will be extended to other vehicles in stages.

London’s LEZ and ULEZ

Since 2003, when the congestion charge was launched, London has taken the lead with measures to tackle what Mayor of London Sadiq Khan calls the city’s “filthy, toxic air”.

In 2008, London created a low emission zone, and in 2017 a Toxicity Charge (T-Charge) introduced a surcharge for the most polluting vehicles entering central London. But levels of pollution in the capital remain stubbornly high, and so new measures have now been developed.

From 8 April 2019, an Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) will be in place in London, imposing tighter exhaust emission standards. The ULEZ will cost £12.50 for diesel cars manufactured before 2015, as well as most pre-2006 petrol cars cars, motorcycles and vans up to 3.5 tonnes. Vehicles over 3.5 tonnes will have to pay £100 to enter central London. These charges are on top of the £11.50 congestion charge. Failure to pay the ULEZ will result in fines of £160 upwards.

By 2021, the ULEZ will be extended to the north and south circular roads, taking in more London boroughs, including Brent, Camden, Newham, Haringey and Greenwich. By that time, it’s expected that 100,000 cars, 35,000 vans and 3,000 lorries will be affected per day.

There have been mixed responses to the incoming ULEZ. Health organisations such as the British Heart Foundation and the British Lung Foundation, have welcomed the measure, and environmental bodies also see the ULEZ as a step in the right direction. Sustrans, the sustainable transport organisation, commended the Mayor for “showing welcome leadership on tackling toxic air pollution.” Friends of the Earth welcomed the expansion of the ULEZ as “a promising step towards clean air in the city centre”, and called for further moves to protect the health of people living in Greater London.

However, motoring organisations voiced their concerns about the new zone. The RAC has argued that expansion of the ULEZ into residential areas will hit those on low income backgrounds hardest:

“…many now face the daunting challenge of having to spend substantial amounts of money on a newer vehicle or face a daily charge of £12.50 to use their vehicles from October 2021.”

The Road Haulage Association has voiced its opposition to the early application of the ULEZ to Heavy Goods Vehicles, claiming that the measure will have limited impact on improving health and air quality in central London.

Final thoughts

Striking a balance between environmental, health and economic pressures was always going to be a challenge. Even in London, which has led the way in tackling poor air quality, longstanding policies aimed at reducing air pollution have failed to bring it below legal levels. The new ULEZ may go some way to doing that, but it might also antagonise drivers faced with ever-rising costs. Cities on the journey to cleaner air are in for a bumpy ride.


Further reading on tackling air pollution

Why fewer Londoners are taking the tube: a transport researcher explains

This guest blog was written by Nicole Badstuber, Researcher in Urban Transport Governance at the Centre for Transport Studies, UCL.

For the first time since 2008, the number of people using the world-famous London Underground – locally known as “the tube” – has fallen. After over two decades of long-term growth, passenger numbers are down 2%, from 1.38 billion in the financial year 2016-17, to 1.35 billion in 2017-18. Bus use also peaked in 2014, and has been falling steadily each year. Simply put, fewer people in London are using public transport – and this means fewer ticket sales. This has created a funding gap that puts plans for improvements and upgrades in serious jeopardy.

Since the national government cut its £700m a year grant, London’s transport agency, Transport for London (TfL), has been banking on ticket sales to fund the capital’s transport system. But this year, TfL has had to revise its income from tickets sales down by £240m.

This spells trouble for the agency, which plans for ticket sales to generate up to £6.2 billion, or 62%, of the £10.2 billion budget for 2022-23 – a step increase from today’s £4.6 billion, or 45% of this year’s budget. Since London Mayor Sadiq Khan is committed to freezing single fares, additional growth will need to come from more passengers.

This is, in some ways, a reasonable expectation: population and employment – the key drivers of transport demand – are still growing in London. TfL points towards economic factors, including the uncertainty of Brexit, to explain the downturn in demand for public transport. But this year’s lower passenger numbers point instead towards lifestyle changes, which are affecting when and how people choose to travel.

London’s missing passengers

Travel surveys show that the average Londoner made only 2.2 trips (across all transport modes) a day in 2016-17, down 20% from 2006-7. So despite population growth, transport demand has not risen as much as expected. This decline is mirrored across England: between 2002 and 2016 a 9% drop in trips across all modes was recorded.

Passenger numbers and journey stages on London Underground. Travel in London Report 10/TfL, Author provided

Flexible and remote working practices are contributing to this trend: instead of commuting to work five days, the new normal for Londoners is now four. Over the past decade, commuting trips have dropped by 14.2%.

At the same time, the cost of travel has been increasing. While single fares on the bus and the tube cost approximately the same in real terms between 2000 and 2012, they have increased 5% and 3% respectively since then. The cost of season tickets is up even more; 8% on the bus and 6% on the London Underground in real terms since 2012.

Greater transport costs mean less disposable income, which partially explains why Londoners are making fewer leisure and shopping trips, instead opting to stay home and shop online. Meanwhile, London’s changing mix of traffic suggests that personal trips are being substituted with deliveries. This shifts the burden from the public transport network to the road network. Across London, light goods vans are making up a growing proportion of traffic: accounting for 14% of traffic in 2016, up from 10% in 1993 and 11% in 2000.

Trouble for TFL

To avoid a major shortfall, TfL will need to look at new ways to fund transport. One solution might be to reform London’s congestion charge. Currently, the congestion charge covers less than 1.5% of the city, applies only between 7am and 6pm, consists of a simple, daily flat rate, and exempts private hire vehicles – your Uber drivers and minicabs.

Over the past four years, there has been a 75% increase in the number of registered private hire vehicles. On Friday and Saturday nights, 18,000 cars flood the streets of Central London. With New York City set to introduce a surcharge for taxis and private hire vehicles (US$2.50 and US$2.75 respectively), London might also want to follow suit.

A more comprehensive road pricing strategy would be an effective tool to manage traffic and generate funds for the transport system. A reformed congestion charge alongside good public transport, cycling infrastructure and public space could encourage Londoners to shift away from their cars toward travelling by public transport, walking and cycling.

TfL predicts that most of its revenue growth – £3.2 billion over the next five years – will come from the new Elizabeth Line, which is set to start running in December 2018. By 2022-23, TfL expects passenger numbers on the Elizabeth Line to increase by 200m to 269m, and tickets sales to earn £913m. Over the same period, passenger numbers on the London Underground and bus network are forecast to rise by just 5% and 3% respectively.

The income from the Elizabeth Line is crucial to TfL balancing its books. As outgoing deputy mayor for transport, Val Shawcross, warned, delays to the Elizabeth Line opening on time are TfL’s greatest revenue risk. So as engineering challenges threaten to push back the opening date, TfL’s money worries look set to worsen.

The funding conundrum

TfL is also seeking to earn from developments on some of the 300 acres of land it owns in the city. By 2022-23, the property partnerships agreed between TfL and thirteen large property development companies in 2016 are set to generate £3.4 billion of income to reinvest into London’s transport system. London Mayor Sadiq Khan is pushing for further sites to be unlocked, to generate more funds and meet his manifesto commitment to build more affordable homes for Londoners.

Khan’s manifesto pledge to freeze single fare tickets throughout his term is estimated to cost £640m. Arguably, reneging on that promise could return £640m to TfL’s purse. TfL points to national rail services where fares are higher and the reduction in passenger numbers has been greater, and argue that the fare freeze blunted the drop in passenger numbers.

If TfL fails to find new ways to fund its network, more cuts to upgrade and capital programmes are only a matter of time. The agency has already cut its funding for streets, cycling and public spaces in London’s boroughs, and suspended its roads renewal programme and underground capacity upgrades. TfL’s reliance on ticket sales to fund the capital’s transport system makes it very vulnerable to unexpected changes in demand. To ensure London continues to have a world-class transport system, both Khan and TfL must urgently find new sources of funding.


Nicole Badstuber is Researcher in Urban Transport Governance at the Centre for Transport Studies, UCL

This article was originally published on The Conversation website and has been republished with permission under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.