ULEZ: Why The (Slightly) Lower Emission Zone Matters


00:01 hours on Monday 8th April 2019 saw the introduction of the so-called Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ). We look at the past, present and future of low emission zones in London, what is trying to be achieved and why, for now, the ULEZ is a bit of hyperbole, but important nonetheless.

It is not just a transport issue

One of the pre-conceptions often exacerbated by the way harmful emissions are covered in the news is that they are fundamentally a transport issue. This isn’t the full picture.

There are other causes of unwanted emissions, be that NO₂, CO₂ or particulates. Two that have been highlighted recently have been gas for home use (whether cooking or heating) and also wood-burning stoves. Both are a lot worse than might be envisaged. One of the problems of gas is unburnt methane from gas leaks (much worse than CO₂) which contributes to climate change and is a consequence of having a gas supply – whether used or not. This may be why the government is looking to not merely reduce gas usage but ban new gas installations.

There are also a lot of emissions from generating electricity and it is a valid point that, if you look at the issue nationally or globally, electric trains, trams and electric cars are only as clean as the power used to create the electricity.

It would also be valid to mention that, if just concerned with the level of background particulates and other noxious emissions, a far cheaper and more producing ‘quick win’ would be to ban older gas boilers and incentivise people to change over to a newer one.

There are, however, genuine reasons for the Mayor to concentrate on transport to reduce emissions, not least because it is one of the areas that the Mayor can genuinely affect. So whilst it is important to recognise that transport is only part of the problem, that the other areas are still to be addressed is not a valid reason for not taking action here.

Electric vehicles won’t solve the problem

Another issue in the complex world of reducing emissions is that the particularly harmful emissions, the particulates, are also given off by rubber tyres and brakes. So, whilst electric vehicles replacing fossil fuel vehicles on the roads will help, they do not represent a simple solution. Even trams and electric trains produce some harmful emissions, as friction brakes kick in to bring the vehicle to a complete stop.

Protagonists of electric road vehicles will argue that electric vehicles are far better in respect of brakes and tyre use than their internal combustion engine equivalent. This is because they use regenerative braking. It is not, however, as simple as that. Due to the limitations of the current technology, the electric equivalent vehicle is also heaver than its combustion counterpart, which leads to more tyre pollution. Scientists cannot yet agree whether one outweighs the other or not.

One problem with planning for the future is that technological developments are continuing apace and it is hard to predict what benefits could be capitalised on. It is believed, for example, that tyre and brake manufacturers are working hard to reformulate their products whilst, at the same time, not wishing to highlight their work. After all, doing so would be a tacit admission of the damage caused by current products.

The real game changer could be the electric battery. If it were significantly cheaper, more energy-dense or even charged faster then this could change the dynamics of the argument. Despite this, other problems such as deaths on the road or congestion could still remain. The Uber experience has shown that going from a society based on car ownership to on-demand travel will not solve all problems.

Managing expectations

Another valid point, not made often enough, is that, when looking at background emission levels, road vehicles in London don’t actually contribute that much to the level found in London. A small portion of air-borne pollution originates from Continental Europe when the air blows from that direction. Air particles are no respecter of national – or borough – borders. A lot more comes from the M25.

Taken together, the above factors all highlight that one shouldn’t expect a dramatic improvement in the quality of London air any time soon.

So why does the Mayor obsess over transport emissions?

It is clear from his rhetoric that the Mayor wants to do something about emissions. Wanting to do something and doing something useful are two different things. So why does he bother? There are a number of very valid reasons.

Because he can. The Mayor has limited powers. Two areas where he has a lot of power are in formulating and implementing transport policy.

Because he can now. The Mayor would like to do a lot of things in relation to clean air. It is believed that he would also like to be able to restrict wood burning stoves, as damage caused is out of all proportion to their benefits. This would, however, require powers which he does not currently have. When it comes to transport, the Mayor has a lot of levers that he can pull to change people’s behaviour. These can be financial or achieved by traffic restrictions.

Because the government won’t. Certain things are best done at government level. For example, there is not really much sense in the London Mayor having his own sets of technical emission standards for vehicles to conform to. Other things though, such as the practical implementation of measures to reduce emissions caused by traffic are, at least partially, best done at a more local level. More to the point, government policy is to not get involved at this level, but to enable metropolitan mayors and other local government decision-makers to produce their own solutions.

Because air pollution levels breach EU legal levels. Before anyone points out that what the EU decides doesn’t matter any more, one has to be aware that there is still the possibility we will be following EU rules for a while to come. In any case, it is entirely irrelevant as the government has indicated our pollution laws will be as high – or higher – than the EU ones.

To meet his EU obligations and avoid the potential of large fines, the Mayor has to show that he is doing everything possible to reduce current levels of emissions.

Because it is measurable. The difference between air quality levels before and after implementation of low emissions zone may be small, but it is detectable. As such, the ULEZ is expected to show not only that low emissions zones can work in the real world, but also which measures work best. The run-up to the implementation of the ULEZ has already produced measurable benefits beyond what could be otherwise expected, as companies either replaced their older non-compliant vehicles or re-assigned them elsewhere.

Because it is consistent with the Mayor’s Healthy Streets policy. Rather bravely, the Mayor has made much of a Healthy Streets policy. This is a nebulous concept that incorporates many things, including lower speed limits, cycle routes and a reduction of deaths on the road. Much of it is about making the environment more pleasant and less polluting vehicles would help that.

And finally, the clincher:

To target very local high levels of emissions. Whilst bringing emissions down throughout London is a big ask, a lot can be achieved by improving it in limited areas where the level is exceptionally high. These tend to be busy roads and, crucially, around schools.

There is a lot of evidence to show that pollution particularly affects the heath of children – even before they are born. A massive benefit to society could be achieved if the levels could be cut down in the vicinity of schools and the best, more effective way of doing this is to reduce the emissions from nearby road vehicles.

From the Mayor’s point of view, the schools argument also has a very convenient political advantage – it is very hard to argue against. Science backs up this argument which also appeals to the emotional aspect. Arguments about causing hardship for the poor, or a further problem businesses could do without, will cut little ice in the populist viewpoint.

A lot of politics is about winning the argument. If the argument can be won then a lot of other measures such as banning traffic around schools at the start and end of the school day (as already happens in some places) can also be implemented. You are also more likely to make other behaviour less socially acceptable – such as running the car engine whilst waiting for children to be picked up from school.

The first emissions zone

The first emissions zone in London had very little to do with transport. Various Clean Air Acts starting from the late 1950s led to local authorities introducing Smoke Free Zones. These limited the burning of coal and were often primarily aimed at domestic houses. Most London boroughs are entirely covered by a smoke free zone but, incredibly, there are still some areas that are not.

The clean(er) air revolution was considerably helped by the subsequent introduction of North Sea gas starting in the late 1960s. This led many households to switch over to gas. It also meant that polluting gas works could be closed. These changes made it easier for local councils to designate further smoke free zones within the boroughs.

Nowadays, gas is seen as part of the problem and this is one of many examples where a transitional technology has saved the day only for it to subsequently become the bad guy. Gas itself is now starting to appear on the environmental assassin’s list. It probably isn’t the first example of this – one can look back at the internal combustion engine being the saviour and ridding London of large quantities of horse manure on the streets.

The dual-purpose Congestion Charge

When Mayor Ken Livingstone introduced the Congestion Charge in 2003, it wasn’t entirely clear what its purpose was. Clearly, a major goal was to reduce congestion. Sir Peter Hendy, the former Transport Commissioner, has also commented that, in retrospect, a major benefit was to provide an extra income to enable the expansion of the bus services. Something which might not have otherwise happened.

The Congestion Charge did include exceptions. One was related to vehicles with low or no tailpipe (or ‘exhaust pipe’ in UK English) emission. Clearly such vehicles did not cause less congestion. Crucially, the Toyota Prius, an early ground-breaking hybrid car becoming popular at the time, qualified as did the small number of fully electric vehicles on the road. An important, much overlooked, statement was made at the time: As the years passed, the standard for qualifying for the ”clean’ exception would be tightened so it was higher than ‘standard’ polluting cars.

Another group excepted from the Congestion Charge was the private hire vehicle (PHV or mini-cab as often called). The logic behind this was less clear, but one factor could have been that mini-cabs tended not to need somewhere to park. As a result they could be seen as an efficient user of road space. Alternatively, by adding their drivers to the many categories of exceptions, the Mayor reduced the opposition to the scheme.

At the time, the number of PHVs in central London was quite low. As a result, the Congestion Charge was initially successful at reducing traffic levels, largely through the near elimination of private cars. What was not anticipated though was how much the PHV numbers would rise.

To a large degree, this has been the effect of Uber and other Uber-like rideshare apps. These not only increased demand for PHV journeys in central London, but have also incentivised those drivers to drive around in anticipation of their next fare rather than park up (which cost money) or leave the zone. The economics of this was much helped by PHV drivers favouring the Prius, which was inexpensive to run in slow moving traffic. Whilst good for mini-cab drivers and their passengers, the additional PHV presence had an unanticipated and unwelcome effect on traffic flow.

In fairness to mini-cab drivers, it should also be noted that black cab drivers have a bigger incentive than mini-cab drivers to behave the same way, as they can be hailed on the street. Driving around thus maximises their chances of a fare. Worse still, the places likely to produce the best chance of a pick-up tend to be popular places and these tend not to have free-flowing traffic.

The short-lived Chelsea Extension

In 2007 a western extension to the Congestion Charge was controversially introduced by Ken Livingstone. With a mayoral election due in 2008, it inevitably became an election issue though no mainstream candidate suggested abandoning the central London zone.

In 2008 Boris Johnson became Mayor. He claimed to support it but also said that he wanted local residents to decide. From the outset, however, he opposed Mayor Livingstone’s policy of a CO₂ based emission charge. Interestingly, at the time, the issue was CO₂ and other emissions were scarcely mentioned, which shows both how our knowledge and attitude to the subject has changed. Fairly predictably, local residents voted against the Congestion Charge in Chelsea. This is just one example (of which there are many) of local users of a particular service or road being able to decide policy that affects other people. There will always be controversy as to how much this should be allowed to happen.

The ‘Low’ Emission Zone

Separate to the Congestion Charge, Mayor Livingstone proposed a London-wide restricted zone that would charge a substantial fee for the worst emitting vehicles to drive within that zone. It was called the Low Emissions Zone, but that really was unfortunate and led to nomenclature problems later on. It was actually a ‘not-High Emissions Zone’, as all it really did was ban the most polluting vehicles. For the most part, these were the ones that were probably getting towards the time at which they ought to be replaced anyway.

Crucially, private cars were omitted from the restrictions. This was probably a good move politically and based on the desire not to alienate voters. Cars also tend not to be the largest polluters. However, many cars have a van equivalent with similar emissions and these were subject to the Low Emission Zone – so basically it was a case of once you are in business you are fair game.

The Low Emission Zone at the time of introduction was always intended as just the start, with standards gradually being raised. In 2009 Mayor Johnson announced plans to cancel Phase 3, due to be introduced in 2010, which would have tightened the rules for larger vehicles. The then-Mayor cited the pressures business were under in a recession, but the move attracted a lot of criticism, perhaps more than the Mayor was expecting. This may have been partly down to an increased understanding of just how damaging bad air is for Londoners.

Phase 3 was eventually introduced in 2012, which tightened up the rules for large lorries, buses and coaches. Cars were still exempt. Meanwhile, standards for new vehicles have got stricter. So one could well argue that by 2019 the restrictions (compared to what is ‘the norm’) have actually got more lax overall.

The T-Charge

The T-Charge (toxicity charge) was never part of any long term plan. It was proposed by the current Mayor, Sadiq Khan, and was introduced to do something about the worsening central London air quality and fill the gap prior to the Ultra-Low Emission Zone being introduced. Its implementation was a quick and dirty solution, built on the Congestion Charge mechanism.

The T-Charge was a less-than-perfect implementation, but did do something more than the Congestion Charge to encourage drivers to use cleaner vehicles. The charge was separate to the Congestion Charge, but in addition to it (if the vehicle was liable to the charge).

The biggest weakness of the T-Charge was that it only operates during the hours of the Congestion Charge, whereas clearly a pollution charge should not be limited by time of day or day of week. Blue badge holders were also exempt which seems slightly illogical. Whilst there is a lot of logic in exempting Blue badge holders from the Congestion Charge, there is no logical reason why they should be allowed to avoid paying the T-charge – especially as the requirements for cars are not that onerous. Furthermore, this must create problems because the a qualifying blue badge holder is a person whereas the T-charge applies to a vehicle.

One of the major apparent weaknesses of the T-charge has been that taxis are exempt even if the vehicles do not comply. This is because the approach to making taxis cleaner is done in a different way, helped in some part by the fact that they are regulated by TfL. There is more opportunity to tailor the requirements of taxis more closely to that desired in central London elsewhere.

In terms of raising standards and being more universal, the T-charge had the redeeming features that cars were included. A vehicle that didn’t meet the standards also incurred further costs if driven into central London during hours of operation from the all-London LEZ thus ‘qualifying’ for two charges.

The Ultra Low Emission Zone (Phase One)

The Ultra Low Emission Zone (phase 1) was introduced on the 8th April 2019.

Most changes are about eliminating inconsistencies brought about by the T-charge, but the other critical change is that compliance with the requirements (and so therefore not have to pay the charge) has become much more challenging. Diesel vehicles now have to be Euro6/Euro VI compliant which, for most diesel vehicles, means not be more than four years old. This is much stricter than before but hardly ‘ultra-low’. This stricter requirement will primarily affect businesses.

Many of the exceptions have now been removed as well. For example, it is not enough just to be a blue badge holder. Buses and coaches have to be compliant, even though they are exempted from the Congestion Charge. Finally, the Congestion Charge is almost becoming just that – a charge for being a cause of congestion. The main exception is a pure electric vehicle or vehicle capable travelling 20 miles on electric propulsion only. These vehicles do not pay the Congestion Charge and, of course, they qualify for exemption of payment for the ULEZ.

The anomaly of the hours of operation of the T-Charge is removed and the ULEZ applies 24 hours a day seven days a week. It would even appear to apply to a parked vehicle on the public highway, which logically ought to be subject to the Congestion Charge but not the ULEZ.

What might be considered the biggest change of all applies not to the ULEZ, but to the Congestion Charge. Private Hire Vehicles are no longer exempt, although wheelchair-adapted vehicles will get an exemption whilst being used to fulfil a disabled booking. It will be interesting to see what difference this makes to the popularity of PHVs in the Congestion Charge area.

Stricter LEZ from 2020

From 26th October 2020 the rules for the London-wide LEZ are changing for buses, coaches and lorries or “other specialist vehicle over 3.5 tonnes”. These vehicles will then have to comply with the same conditions as the ULEZ. From that date these vehicles will only have to pay one charge – not one for each zone.

Looking at this another way, effectively from 26th October 2020 the ULEZ as a separate zone disappears for larger vehicles. For these vehicles there is only a LEZ which covers most of London.

The Big One: ULEZ phase 2 in 2021

It could be argued that the ULEZ phase 1 is little more than the logical progression of more restrictive emission zones, updated to take into account the changing world. Where the Mayor has chosen to break new ground is to extend the ULEZ area all the way to the North and South Circular Road boundaries. This is roughly the outer limit of Zone 3 public transport fares, and, also crudely, a boundary between car-preferred local travel in outer London and bus, rail or green-modes-preferred travel in inner and central London.

This would be a massive change for owners of cars, vans, minibuses and motorbikes. Owners of other, larger vehicles will be unaffected as their changes take place in 2020. For owners of these smaller vehicles that do not comply, a large portion of London is now out of bounds or subject to a daily charge when the vehicle is being used or even parked on the road. This is likely to be the most controversial phase and already there is talk of exemptions for non-profit making organisations for a limited period, as well as ‘sunset’ exceptions or reduced rates for resident in order for them to be able to take time to be compliant.

Beyond ULEZ phase 2

With phase 2 over two years away and the impact of phase 1 of ULEZ not yet known, it is too early to look to what we could expect beyond phase 2. In no small part, this will depend on who London has as a Mayor, what is technically feasible and what supporting legislation the government brings in.

One obvious option is to get rid of the ULEZ and just have the LEZ, requiring ULEZ standards for all vehicles. A disadvantage of this is that it doesn’t disincentivise drivers from visiting central London. But, arguably, that is the job of the Congestion Charge and not of any emissions zone requirements.

A further fairly obvious option for the future is to tighten the rules in the Congestion Charge zone – so reinstate the idea of a central London ULEZ. Subject to what is technologically possible, this could mean that the only exempt vehicles would be those capable of 20 miles on an electric charge or alternatively only be allowed to use electrical propulsion within the ULEZ.

Facing the future

All this progress should lead to London seeming a lot cleaner in the next five to ten years. Of course, whether it is actually much cleaner is going to depend partly on a load of other factors, some of which will remain beyond the Mayor’s, or even the government’s, control.

Nonetheless, it is important to be wary of those who seek to criticise the Mayor – or London as a whole – for implementing the zone when there are larger sources of emissions elsewhere. Some of that criticism should likely be regarded as disingenuous. If not, then it at least fails to consider the basic need to be pragmatic.

One of the strengths that Frank Pick, and his various organisation heirs, have continually displayed in London is an awareness that sometimes you have to take the options that are on the table, not wait for the ideal ones that exist in your head. What applied to the Tube in the 20th Century could easily be said to apply to the subject of emissions now.

It’s certainly true that the overall impact – in raw numbers terms – of the ULEZ (Phase 1) may prove to be limited. But sometimes it’s not the size that matters, but what you do with it that counts.

In transport terms, London has a proud tradition of often being the first among the great cities of the world to tackle the biggest problems head on. Tackling emissions (and, more broadly, climate change) is something that can no longer be avoided and where the ‘Big Smoke’ leads, other cities will follow.

This city shrugged off that nickname once. It is time for it to start doing so again.

Thanks to Graham Feakins and Jonathan Roberts for corrections and improvements. Cover photo by David Holt.

Written by Pedantic of Purley