9 Aug 21

Europe’s tightening city bans: a complex (and simple) story

How do you push air pollution out of city centres? You deny polluting vehicles entry – either completely, or unless they pay a hefty fee. Such city bans do two things: improve air quality and speed up the electrification of mobility. The problem is that the 260 or so Low Emission Zones (LEZs) across Europe often operate on widely varying parameters. What’s the state of play today? 

When it comes to air quality measures, no European city is an island. Take Brussels, which recently proposed to ban all diesel vehicles from its territory by 2030, and all petrol ones by 2035. The Brussels government said that by going for zero-emission mobility, it was following the lead of Amsterdam, Paris, London and other European cities. 

However, such examples are more about direction than about specific steps. The targets and timing of Brussels’s proposal – which it hopes will pass before the end of this year – are entirely its own. And, as is often the case, those measures build on previous ones already in place.

11% reduction

In the case of Brussels, it inaugurated its LEZ back in 2018. The LEZ, which completely banned the most polluting cars with internal combustion engines (ICEs), has since helped reduce NOx and particulate matter emissions by 11%. Nevertheless, most Brussels residents still live in areas where air pollution exceeds the limits recommended by the WHO. 

This fact, plus the increased emphasis on climate change concerns that is shared around Europe and the world, is why Brussels wants to abandon its current, more gradual plan, which would still allow the least-polluting diesel and petrol cars into the LEZ long into the future.

Similar evolutions are likely to occur in many – if not most – of the other LEZs across Europe: an escalation of the measures against ICEs, from a gradual to an increasingly radical reduction, and even outright exclusion. Even if each local authority chooses its own path, they are all aiming at a largely similar outcome (i.e. low to no emission mobility), and in many cases within the same time frame (roughly 2025-40). 

That clear direction should concentrate the minds of anyone bewildered by the complex and varied measures taken at local level. In short: the best way to avoid reduced access and/or increased fees for urban mobility now and even bigger ones in the future, is to make sure your fleet has no emissions. In practice: electrify! 

Delays and postponements

Another thing to keep in mind, meanwhile, is that proposals don’t automatically translate into practice. City councils may announce LEZs and assorted ideas with great fanfare, but they involve a large number of practical changes that need to be implemented, which takes time. That is why a lot of the news about LEZs in Europe has been about delays and postponements

  • The start of the Toulouse LEZ (in French: Zone à faibles émissions, or ZFE), was postponed from April to September 2021. 
  • The Clean Air Zone (CAZ) in Bristol, which was supposed to start on 29 October of this year, will be postponed until the summer of 2022. 
  • The expansion of Glasgow’s LEZ, which is already in place for buses, to include other vehicle categories as well, has been pushed back to June 2023.

Most of the recent and imminent changes in LEZ regulations across Europe involve the tightening of regulations in existing zones, rather than the inauguration of new ones. Listing all would lead us too far. The web review Urban Access Regulations in Europe is an excellent resource for current and future measures in LEZs across Europe.  

As a taster of what is happening at various national levels, the UK may serve as an excellent case study. Building on the experience of London, the country is now rolling out anti-pollution zones across the country in a two-tiered system that is both nationally mandated and locally implemented. 

Uniform framework

The result is a uniform framework allowing a flexible response to a variety of local circumstances. Some cities move faster than others, all have their own ideas – and in some cases, those don’t even include low-emission zones at all. 

Launched in 2019, London’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) was the UK’s first major attempt at improving air quality by targeting high-polluting vehicles. The ULEZ has served as an example for a similar, UK-wide scheme, the Clean Air Zone (CAZ).  

As the name indicates, a CAZ is an area where measures are taken to improve air quality. It can be as small as a street, and as big as a city centre. Certain categories of cars may be charged a daily fee (or even a fine) when entering a CAZ.

CAZs are implemented by local authorities, but overseen by central government, which means there is a structured approach. There are four classes of CAZ:

  • Class A: affecting buses, coaches, taxis and private-hire vehicles.
  • Class B: affecting all vehicles in Class A, plus heavy-goods vehicles.
  • Class C: affecting all vehicles in Class B, plus light-goods vehicles, vans and minibuses.
  • Class D: affecting all vehicles in Class C, plus cars (and motorcycles, if the local authority wants to include them). 

Vehicles meeting certain emissions standards are exempt:

  • Euro 6 and better, for buses, coaches and heavy-goods vehicles, and for diesel cars, vans and taxis.
  • Euro 4 and better, for petrol cars, vans and taxis. 
  • Ultra-low and zero-emission vehicles.

Payment checker

How much drivers will be charged for entering a CAZ is determined by the local authority. The central government provides a CAZ Payment Checker. Enter a UK license plate, and the tool produces info on vehicle type and on whether a charge applies (in three CAZs, for which maps are also provided: Bath and Birmingham, which are already live; and Portsmouth, which will follow in late 2021). 

The procedure is a bit more complicated for vehicles not registered in the UK, in which case it is up to the driver to verify whether they need to pay a fee.

Bath CAZ (Class C) is live.

  • £9 daily charge for non-compliant vans, taxis and minibuses.
  • £100 daily charge for non-compliant trucks and lorries, coaches and buses.
  • No charge for private cars and motorbikes.

Birmingham CAZ (Class D) is live.

  • £8 daily charge for non-compliant cars, vans and taxis.
  • £50 daily charge for non-compliant heavy-goods vehicles, buses and coaches.
  • Not paying the fee will incur an additional fine of £120.

Target dates

CAZs will be coming to these cities (and at these target dates): Bristol (29 October 2021), Bradford (October 2021), Leicester (summer 2021), Manchester (May 2022), Newcastle (late 2021), Portsmouth (November 2021) and Sheffield (late 2021).

Another CAZ is planned in Oxford (for August 2021, i.e. just about now). The university city even wants to go as far as introducing a Zero Emission Zone (ZEZ). This would mean charging all diesel and petrol cars which enter the city. 

CAZs are under consideration in Cambridge, St Albans, York and other places. Plans for a CAZ in Liverpool have been put on hold. CAZs have been rejected for Canterbury, Derby, Exeter, Leeds and Nottingham.

A long list of further local authorities are required by government to produce a local action plan to improve air quality, which may include a CAZ. These include Bolton, Middlesbrough, North Tyneside, Salford and Trafford. 

Special case

London is a special case. The ULEZ which is currently in force (pictured), covers the same area as the Congestion Charging Zone – meaning that non-exempt vehicles are charged two fees when entering this area. 

However, this will change on October 25, 2021, when the ULEZ will expand to reach (but not include) the North and South Circular Roads. ULEZ charges are:

  • £12.50 daily fee for non-exempt cars, vans and motorcycles;
  • £100 daily fee for non-exempt buses, lorries and coaches. 

Scotland has one LEZ in operation (in Glasgow), with three more planned (for Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee) by 2022. The Glasgow LEZ currently only targets buses, but will be expanded to include all vehicle types by 2022. It is expected that more Scottish cities will use LEZs and so-called Air Quality Management Areas to reduce pollution. There are no CAZs or LEZs in operation in Northern Ireland or Wales, but several proposals are being studied.

Whatever the term – CAZ, LEZ, ULEZ or ZEZ – the near future will see both a deepening and a widening of the city ban phenomenon in Europe, a trend that is both complex and simple, and that neither consumers nor corporates can afford to ignore. 

Image: Shutterstock

Authored by: Frank Jacobs