Next Monday, the Mayor’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) comes into effect. The ULEZ is being brought in to tackle London’s toxic air by charging the most polluting vehicles for entering central London – at any time of day or night. This is one of the most radical environmental interventions of its kind in the world and is the crux of the Mayor’s strategy to clean up London’s air.
Why has the Mayor taken this radical action? In short, because it is badly needed. Two million people in London are living with illegal air pollution, the health implications of which disproportionately affect children, older people and those with pre-existing health conditions. I is also a matter of equity; people living in deprived areas tend to be more adversely affected than those in more affluent parts of town.
Transport is responsible for approximately half of London’s air pollution. In light of this, the ULEZ has an ambitious and noble aim: to help remove the dirtiest vehicles from central London and significantly improve concentrations of vehicle-related pollutants, especially nitrogen dioxide.
Drivers of the most polluting vehicles – largely pre-2005 petrol cars and pre-2015 diesels – will be affected. In the first stage this is estimated to mean 40,000 cars, 19,000 vans and 2,000 lorries. Residents will be exempt until 2021, disabled drivers and wheelchair-accessible PHVs until 2025, while black taxis are subject to separate environmental regulations. By reducing the number of polluting vehicles, the scheme has the potential to bring about real change: estimates suggest that the number of primary schools affected by illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide within the ULEZ zone will drop from 371 to 4.
Hitting the limits?
But the scheme has limitations. Some have argued it will adversely affect drivers on low incomes or smaller businesses – especially those that may not be able to afford a new vehicle. In response, the Mayor has launched a £48 million fund to help low-income Londoners and micro-businesses to scrap vehicles that do not comply, though it has not been widely publicised and so far fewer than 100 small firms have signed up for the business scheme.
The scheme will also have little impact on other types of pollutants – particularly small particles created through general road, tyre and break wear, which are equally harmful to public health.
There are geographical limitations too. The ULEZ is initially focused on central London, but the knock-on impact the scheme could have outside the zone is unclear.
At the same time, the ULEZ will not help address growing congestion; while it targets high-polluting vehicles, overall vehicle usage will remain largely unchanged. And like the Congestion Charge, the ULEZ runs the risk of changing where and when people drive, rather than how much they drive. Why? Because both the CC and ULEZ are flat daily charges, which cost drivers the same whether they drive in the zone for a few minutes or all day.
What comes next?
Just as the Congestion Charge was pioneering when it was introduced, so the ULEZ will make a big contribution to cutting air-pollution. But they are both relatively blunt systems. We now sit on the cusp of being able to adopt new technology which could replace both schemes with a more sophisticated approach that simultaneously tackles the issues of both congestion and pollution.
Within a few years, London could be in a position to adopt new technology and launch a more sophisticated distance-based scheme, which makes sure road users pay for the true costs of a journey. This scheme could reflect vehicle characteristics – promoting the use of cleaner vehicles – as well as distance, time and location of the journey – charging more for using congested and polluted roads at peak times. Individual journeys would then be priced according to their real impact in terms of road wear, congestion and pollution – which is a much fairer alternative to flat charges. Road users would have more flexibility to drive off-peak or on less congested roads or to choose an alternative mode of travel.
Following the introduction of the ULEZ, the Mayor needs to act quickly to ensure London is ready to adopt this new technology. Only then will London have an approach which is fairer to drivers and creates a healthier, more liveable city for all.
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