London To Ban Dirty Vans And Minibuses In "Low Emissions Zone"

First you had to pay to drive into the city center. Now some cars won't be able to drive there at all. It's all in an effort to clean up the city's air--and the health of its citizens.

London is already famous for its congestion pricing system. Since 2003, private motorists have had to pay a fee to drive within the crowded city center. Now London is going a step further. In an effort to improve air quality, the city is cracking down on the dirtiest vehicles.

Beginning in January 2012, large vans, pickup trucks, minibuses, and a handful of other vehicles will be banned from the city’s Low Emissions Zone (which covers most of greater London) unless they meet the strict Euro 3 emissions standards. For most people with those vehicles, that will mean adding a particulate trap to the exhaust system at a typical cost of $2,400 to $3,500. The aim of the new restrictions is to improve public health in the city by reducing the particulate matter emitted from diesel-powered vans and other high-polluting vehicles.

These new restrictions are part of a broader air quality improvement campaign by Mayor Boris Johnson, which includes reducing dust emissions from construction sites and retrofitting houses and offices to be more energy efficient. (His huge bike-share system won’t hurt either.)

London has a history of frighteningly bad air. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the city experienced regular “pea soupers"--windless days when coal smoke and fog would combine to create a deadly shroud of pollution that could make it hard to see, not to mention breathe. The Great Smog of ’52, one of the worst such events, caused thousands of premature deaths and lead to the city’s Clean Air Act of 1956.

While the situation is much better today, parts of the city still fall short of European Union air quality targets. A study conducted for the Greater London Authority estimated that bad air quality could contribute to more than 4,000 deaths per year in the city, and lower-income residents near busy roads are disproportionately affected.

The transition might be difficult. The new Low Emissions Zone rules were announced back in 2007, but many residents and organizations have been caught off guard anyway. According to The Guardian, schools and charity groups that use old minibuses are facing an unexpected dilemma: retrofit or replace their fleet or reduce their operations in the city. Presumably the benefits to the public will more than outweigh these costs, though. Asthma and lung cancer are expensive, too.

[Images: Top, Flickr user SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget; Bottom, City of London]

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