What Impact do Low Emission Zones Have on Urban Cities?

Gretchen ReeseSeptember 24, 2021

Cities around the world are taking big steps to meet government-set goals of carbon neutrality within the next few decades. With most strategies detailing plans for EV adoption and renewable energy generation, many are opting to include low emission zones to protect the air quality in big cities.

Low emission zones (LEZs) are common throughout Europe and the UK, with over 250 protected European cities as of 2019. Cities like London, Barcelona and Milan have some of the largest LEZs in the world, showing promising results for reduced air pollution and NO2 concentration. Though not as common in the United States yet, these European cities provide a blueprint for the future of LEZs around the world.

What is a low emission zone?

Low emission zones are designated areas, commonly city centers, where polluting vehicles are restricted or entirely prohibited. These areas typically allow access only to vehicles that meet certain emission standards, such as electric, hybrid, or alternative fuel vehicles. Vehicles that don’t meet these requirements will be fined or penalized for entering the low emission zone, unless previously exempt by paying a daily fee.

These zones are implemented with the purpose of improving air quality for citizens, and they tend to be very effective. In Greater London alone, NO2 concentration has dropped 44 percent since the launch of the Ultra Low Emission Zone initiative in 2017.

In order to put a successful LEZ into place, however, there are a few factors urban planners must consider. First, availability of public transportation. Without easily accessible public transportation, LEZs are detrimental to low-income workers who cannot afford to replace their ICE vehicles. Policy makers can facilitate this transition for low-income families and small businesses by providing financial support or incentives for purchasing clean vehicles.

Second, certain exemptions might need to be made for medium- and heavy-duty fleets who currently have less or no options for vehicle alternatives. Further, municipalities must consider their own timeline for adopting electric, hybrid or alternative fuel vehicles as part of their government fleet.

For local fleets and consumers, LEZs mean looking toward the future, replacing vehicles and creating other solutions. Especially with many LEZs being implemented as a transitory phase to less forgiving zero emission zones, these policies are forcing city fleets and citizens to adapt sooner rather than later.

What are the benefits for cities adopting low emission zones?

Along with meeting zero emission goals encouraged by the Paris Climate Agreement, low emission zones offer many benefits for cities and their residents. It is unsurprising that these zones are always implemented in busy cities, as opposed to on the country side, because of the population density and congestion of vehicles in such a small area.

Better air quality

With transportation being the biggest contributor to air pollution, a reduction or total elimination of polluting vehicles in cities would reduce the amount of toxic pollutants, like carbon monoxide and sulfur oxides, in the air. The city of Madrid, for example, saw a record reduction of NO2 concentration by 32 percent while their LEZ policy was in place.

Public health

Air pollution’s affect on health and lifespan is another major concern. The City of London quotes that about 4,000 Londoners died in 2019 due to long-term exposure to the toxic elements in air pollution, which causes and increases the risk of cancer, asthma, stroke and dementia. This is concerning for residents of all ages, as exposure over a lifetime in that city can have very detrimental health effects.

Speeding up electrification

While it might be considered a pain for fleet managers to overhaul their current strategies and go completely electric, they will likely appreciate having ripped off the band-aid in the long run. Many cities are calling for a total ban on ICE vehicles by a certain year, as London is by 2030, so managers are better off phasing out ICEs as soon as possible.

Limiting city congestion

Restrictions on vehicle movement within busy cities will also be useful in cutting down on heavy traffic. In addition to reducing the amount of toxic pollutants in the air, a less congested city would certainly improve quality of life for residents, making streets optimal for biking and walking instead.

Will we see clean air zones in the US?

While Europe and China have been leading the way in low and zero emissions zones and diesel bans in cities, the US has some catching up to do. Currently, there are no cities implementing any type of ban on diesel vehicles in the US, as the general priorities have pointed toward EV implementation and renewable energy sources rather than green zones

Some are taking matters into their own hands, however. With General Motors announcing their plan to have a zero emission product lineup by 2035, and California Governor Gavin Newsom saying that the state will ban the sale of new ICE engine cars and trucks by 2035 as well.

One city that is making strides for cleaner air is Santa Monica, California. The city is the first to map a zero emission delivery zone, meaning that all goods delivered within the area must arrive in a zero emission vehicle, whether that be an electric vehicle or a bicycle.

What low emissions zones mean for global sustainability

Green zones in major cities are effective and show promising results nearly immediately. As electric-powered trucks and heavy-duty vehicles have been slow to roll out, the biggest barrier now is lack of available alternatives. However, cities looking for an immediate solution can still enforce green zones for passenger vehicles, light-duty trucks and city buses.

From a global standpoint, the reduction of greenhouse gases in areas that are currently so concentrated with these toxic pollutants would be significant for public health and for a global reduction of GHG.

If you’re interested to see how our platform and team of analysts are helping fleets become more sustainable through their telematics data, schedule a demo with us today.

Gretchen Reese

Growth Marketing Manager

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