Blog Post

ULEZ: Emergency measure or a stopgap?

The Mayor of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) is now in effect.

The ULEZ is an emergency measure, 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. Air pollution 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 be 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. And there are already signs the scheme might be working: a recent survey found 82 per cent of commuters that drive into the zone have already changed or thought about changing their transport, and the vast majority of those have switched to public transport. But despite this, the scheme does have limitations.

What are the limitations of the ULEZ?

Some have argued that it will adversely affect drivers on low incomes and 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 microbusinesses scrap vehicles that do not comply with these standards, 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 that 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 just 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 Congestion Charge and the ULEZ are flat daily charges, which cost drivers the same whether they drive in the zone, whether that’s for a few minutes or all day.

What comes next?

Just as the Congestion Charge was pioneering when it was introduced, so will the ULEZ 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 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, one which ensure 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 will need to act quickly to ensure London is in a position to adopt this new technology. Only then will London have an approach which is fairer to drivers and creates a healthier and more liveable city for all.

What could the next generation of road user charging look like?

Silviya Barrett is Research Manager at Centre for London. Follow her on Twitter.

Further reading:

Investment in London’s roads is badly needed but how can we pay for it?

Three ways to clean up London’s air