Blog Post

The ULEZ is far from perfect. What should the Mayor do next?

This month the Ultra Low Emission Zone expands to the North and South Circular roads. Our External Affairs Manager Amy Leppänen explains why the Mayor must now look to introduce a simpler and smarter road user charging scheme.

Speaking at this month’s Mayor’s Question Time at City Hall, the Mayor indicated that Transport for London (TfL) is keeping road user charging under “constant review.”  This might seem like a strange thing to say given that TfL is about to embark on a major expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to the North and South Circular roads. Operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the scheme is the most ambitious of its kind in the world. But it isn’t ambitious enough. And the Mayor knows it.

The expansion of the ULEZ is a huge step towards cleaner air in our capital. Since the launch of the initial zone in 2019 roadside nitrogen dioxide has been cut by 44 per cent. These are impressive results, but the ULEZ is far from perfect and shouldn’t be viewed as the silver bullet for tackling London’s dirty air.

The tech

The ULEZ is an analogue scheme in a digital age, relying on technology created for the Congestion Charge, back in 2003. And although the most polluting vehicles will be eligible for the charge, many petrol and diesel vehicles are still exempt from the scheme despite producing toxic pollutants.

The cost

The flat charge could also be counterproductive: drivers pay £12.50 whether they drive in the zone for a matter of minutes or hours on end. A driver may also decide to drive several times in a day or for longer periods of time to get better value for money from the daily payment. Many London politicians have also raised cases across the city where the proposed zone crudely includes some local amenities within the boundary line, such as waste and recycling centres, which you often need a car to access.

The scheme

But the ULEZ isn’t the only road user charging scheme in London. The city now has a patchwork of schemes, each with its own distinct justification, different rules and charge amounts. The expanded ULEZ will sit alongside the Congestion Charge and the Low Emission Zone with other road charges at the Blackwall and planned Silvertown Tunnel proposed for the future. Meanwhile, some local authorities such as the City of London and Hackney Council have said they would consider introducing local road charges to deal with congestion and pollution hot spots if a city or nationwide scheme isn’t developed.

The next big idea?

Kickstarting plans to replace London’s many road charges with a simpler, smarter and fairer scheme would ensure road users pay for the true cost of a journey and respond to vehicle types, congestion levels, time of day and more. It could make the most of new technology, prioritise different journeys and suggest alternative routes. And it could take a more holistic approach to the challenges our city faces, from improving air quality, and cutting congestion, to encouraging travel by more sustainable modes – something the ULEZ and Congestion Charge can only do in silos. Finally, a London-wide road user charging scheme could also be a much-needed source of new revenue to help plug the yawning hole in Transport for London’s budget. Any additional revenue could also top up the Mayor’s scrappage scheme, and help Londoners take their polluting vehicles off London’s roads.

All eyes around the world will be on London to watch how successful the ULEZ will be in cleaning up the capital’s air. With new rumours that the Treasury is considering a national road pricing scheme, announcing plans to develop a single road user charging scheme in the capital should be the Mayor’s next move. Otherwise, the likelihood is that Whitehall will step in and the city will lose control over deciding on a scheme that works for London.

Amy Leppänen is External Affairs Manager (Communications) at Centre for London. Follow her on Twitter. Read more from her here.