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How London plans to make the entire city an Ultra Low Emissions Zone

The idea is to help tackle three challenges simultaneously—the city’s air pollution, the climate crisis, and killer congestion.

How London plans to make the entire city an Ultra Low Emissions Zone
[Photo: alevision/Unsplash]

Three years ago, London was the first city to introduce an “Ultra Low Emissions Zone,” or ULEZ, which charged the most polluting vehicles a fee to enter—something the BBC called one of the most radical anti-pollution policies in the world at the time. The zone expanded last year. Now the government plans to expand it to cover the entire city.

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It’s a way to help tackle three challenges simultaneously: the city’s air pollution, the climate crisis, and congestion that means drivers now spend the equivalent of six days sitting in traffic each year. London has seen pollution start to drop in the center, where the first ULEZ sits–but the benefits weren’t reaching other neighborhoods, and climate emissions from transportation weren’t dropping quickly enough to be on track for the city’s goal to reach net-zero emissions by 2030. The city’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, wanted to go further to address all three problems.

“When we look at the health impact–for example, the reductions in asthma admissions–we’re seeing the impacts on Outer London aren’t happening as fast as they’re happening in Central London,” says Shirley Rodriques, the city’s deputy mayor for environment and energy. “Sadiq sees this as a social justice and equality issue.” Six out of 10 households in London already don’t own cars, but low-income residents without cars, often in communities of color, are also the most likely to be affected by air pollution.

When drivers enter the existing ULEZ in a car or truck that’s classified as one of the most polluting—something that includes most older diesel cars, and most gas cars older than 2006—they have to pay a £12.50 ($16.50) charge. When the first zone was put in place in April 2019, the number of the most polluting vehicles on local streets immediately dropped by around 10,000 cars a day, and thousands more have been taken off roads since then. The new city-wide zone is estimated to take another 20,000-40,000 polluting vehicles off streets, reduce air pollution in Outer London, and reduce CO2 emissions in Outer London by up to 150,000 metric tons, the city says. Khan has now asked the city’s transportation agency to work on the plan, with the aim to roll it out in 2023 after more public engagement.

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It’s one part of a bigger strategy to push people to drive less. While air pollution and emissions would drop if everyone switched to electric vehicles—and the city is scaling up electric chargers on streets and switching city buses to electric—that wouldn’t solve congestion. “We know we can’t swap a dirty vehicle for a clean vehicle,” Rodriques says. “You have to get people out of their cars walking and cycling for health benefits as well.” Khan has tripled the number of bike lanes in the city since taking office. London also rolled out dozens of low-traffic neighborhoods during the pandemic, with streets that block off vehicle traffic to make it easier to walk and bike. The city is aiming to move 80% of trips to walking, biking, or public transportation by 2040.

To reach the city’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2030, the amount of car traffic will need to drop by 27%. That means that the expanded ULEZ is only a first step. The city is now evaluating what it will take to run a road user fee scheme that can charge vehicles based on how far they drive and how polluting they are. More technology still needs to be developed to make it possible, Rodriques says.

As the new plans scale up, London plans to share what it learns with other cities through C40, a global network of mayors working on climate action. (Khan now chairs the organization.) All of the cities are “absolutely hell bent” on shrinking air pollution from transportation as part of their plans, Rodriques says, both for the climate and health.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley

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