An Almost Car-Free London

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The entire British capital is now off limits to all but the lowest-polluting vehicles. Should other cities follow suit?

Walking the streets of London, I often marvel at how quiet they are. On many streets, you can sit in outdoor cafés without inhaling exhaust fumes or hearing the rumbling of engines. This is due to the city’s many electric and hybrid cars, which glide around silently. Many buses are powered by electricity, too, tackling carbon pollution as well as noise pollution. The UK’s capital recently took another step towards meeting its ambitious climate goals: Effective August 2023, they extended the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to all of Greater London, further limiting emissions from individual cars.

I am not a driver, which makes it easier to be a fan of the ULEZ, first introduced in 2019 and expanded twice since. Within the now city-wide zone, strict emission standards apply. Drivers whose cars don’t comply can expect fines of up to $15 a day. Modern hybrid and electric cars are exempt. 

The Mayor of London hopes that the extension of the ULEZ not only will further reduce emissions in the city, but also will help tackle congestion. History shows that it works: Four months after the zone was first introduced in April 2019, around 13,500 fewer polluting cars were entering central London every day, resulting in thirty percent less congestion and a reduction of around twenty-six percent in roadside nitrogen oxides. So far, the ULEZ has cut toxic air pollution by almost half in London’s heart and by more than a fifth in the city center overall. Now Greater London is set to benefit too. (London is not the first city to try this: a city in northern Spain banned cars entirely in 1999. Along with a 67 percent reduction in air pollution, the city hasn’t had a single traffic fatality in more than a decade.)

With between 3,600 and 4,100 people dying each year in Greater London from air pollution, air quality is an urgent issue. The city still exceeds the World Health Organization's air quality guidelines. Other strategies, such as new zero-emission buses, walking and cycling programmes, and a Superloop bus to connect the outer boroughs, are also in place to help London reach its goal of being net-zero carbon by 2030. 

The ULEZ has been passionately debated in London. The environmental benefits are clear, but there are concerns about the impact of the changes on low-income residents and small businesses. The mayor's popularity has taken a hit, and his opponents have seized on the opportunity to criticize the drastic expansion of the ULEZ ahead of next year's election. He has, however, had support from mayors of other cities, including Oslo and Montreal, noting that they, too, faced opposition. 

Notably, citizens already affected by the ULEZ tend to defend it. Central London residents who have been living in the ULEZ since 2019 strongly support the improved quality of life with less pollution and less noise. And, while other European cities (such as Paris and Milan) already have low emission zones, they mostly focus on city centers and are smaller than London’s ULEZ, which now covers over 1,500 square kilometers. By 2025, there could be as many as 500 low and ultra-low emission zones in Europe, inspired by London’s experience with the stricter ultra-low emission standards. And zero-emission zones, which are even stricter than a ULEZ, are the next step, with cities in Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, and France already committed to putting them in place. While these zones are only one part of any comprehensive package of strategies to meet climate targets, they are an important and relatively simple solution to air pollution.

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Laura Puttkamer
Laura Puttkamer
Laura Puttkamer is an urban journalist focused on telling international solutions stories from a climate angle. She lives in London and enjoys seeing urban innovation in action.
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