Global Sustainability: What Are Low Emissions Zones, And What Do They Mean for Cities?

Gretchen ReeseSeptember 16, 2021

Low emission zones are designated areas, commonly the greater area surrounding a dense city center, where polluting vehicles (more often than not, internal combustion engines) are restricted or entirely prohibited. These areas allow access only to vehicles that meet set 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. Alternatively, some cities offer the option of retrofitting higher emission vehicles with diesel particulate filters to meet the standards set.

But what’s the point?

The purpose of these restrictions being to protect air quality in big cities, and to begin to move toward those net-zero emissions goals that many countries have set for the next few decades.

Ready to learn more? Let’s dig in.

Global Sustainability: What Are Low Emissions Zones, And What Do They Mean for Cities? | Fleet FYIs Podcast, Season 2 Episode 23

Gretchen Reese (00:06):

Hey there, welcome to Fleet FYIs, the weekly podcast by Utilimarc that reveals how you can make the most of your data for smarter fleet management. My name is Gretchen, and every week you’ll hear from me and some of the industry’s finest in candid conversations that will shed some light on not only two decades worth of data insight, but some of the industry’s hottest talking points and key metric analysis with the aim to help you better understand your fleet from every angle.

Gretchen Reese (00:33):

But before we begin, if this is the first time you’ve heard our show, thanks for stopping by. I’m so glad you decided to come along for the ride with us. But I’ve got a quick favor to ask you. Once you finish today’s episode, if you could take a few minutes to leave us a review on your favorite podcasting platform, we would really appreciate it. Give us a rating, five stars I hope, or (laughs) tells us what you liked, or leave us a comment or question about what you’ve heard in today’s episode. But if we haven’t yet covered a topic that you’re interested in hearing more about, let us know. We would be happy to go over it in detail in a later episode. If that sounds good to you, let’s get back to the show.

Gretchen Reese (01:17):

Hello, everyone, and welcome back to another episode of the Fleet FYIs podcast. How’s it going? Me, over here in Minneapolis, I’ve been luxuriating in the cooler weather that we’ve had over the last week. A true northern gal at heart, I am not someone that does well in the extreme heat of the high 90s that we’ve had most of this summer. For a bit of context, you know, typically we might have perhaps 10 days at most of high 90s, but this year I think it’s been closer to 20 or so, which is a bit too intense if you ask me. But on the other side of the same coin, I know that some people will say the same things about our winters too, you know, that whole polar vortex thing that some people are a little afraid of. But oh well.

Gretchen Reese (02:01):

It kind of reminds me, um, this last summer does, of the summer that I spent in London in 2018, so about three years ago now, which it might sound a little bit strange, because one thing, that, um, we probably all know by now is that London is certainly famous for its constant rainy days. But the summer that I spent there a few years ago was hot. And I mean over 90 degrees, it seemed, almost every single day, and when you add in city pollution on top of that it was enough to bring anyone to their knees.

Gretchen Reese (02:32):

And, you know, London has actually been a city that used to really struggle with pollution, and that’s similar to any large city. Kind of like New York City, Chicago, Paris, Milan, Beijing, Shanghai, you name it. And actually, fun fact for you, uh, Big Ben, the clock face that many have come to know as an iconic symbol of London, traditionally had a blue face rather than the black one that we’ve all become very accustomed to. It was actually painted black due to the heavy pollution levels of the city in the 1930s. Which, if you’ve ever watched The Crown, which… I mean, I’m a big historical fiction nerd, but I love The Crown, and if you r- if you watch the episode on, I think it’s called The Great Smog or something like that, you’d kinda get an idea of how bad the pollution could get in bigger cities like that.

Gretchen Reese (03:17):

Uh, but my point is is Big Ben’s blue face was actually just revealed again. It’s back to the original design as part of the ongoing restoration project that, hopefully, will wrap up soon. And there’s no need for concealing the (laughs), um, the soot-blackened face of the clock anymore.

Gretchen Reese (03:35):

But the question still remains. You know, cities like London and other cities mentioned earlier, all have dealt with pollution in their own way. But the thing is, we’re seeing some similarities now, and one of which of those similarities are- is called low emission zones, or clean air zones, which were installed to hopefully combat some of the high pollution levels that each city experiences. And with such a large push around the world calling for sustainability at all levels, you know, from consumers, corporate, and government, all sorts of large-scale plans and initiatives are being put into place worldwide.

Gretchen Reese (04:13):

If you ask someone what sustainability means to them, depending on the person, their industry, where they live, you’ll probably get endless different answers. I mean, no surprise there, right? But they’re all, in a sense, they’re all right. They all could be right because there’s so many ways to tackle sustainability these days, and, you know, most are going to opt for a multi-pronged approach in their strategies.

Gretchen Reese (04:38):

In addition to pushing for electric vehicles and phasing out non-renewable energy which, as I’m sure you know, have been two major focuses in the past few decades. One promising initiative that hasn’t quite hit the United States yet is low emission zones. You might be making a face at me right now as though I’m speaking a little bit of gibberish, but for those of you that don’t know what low emission zones are, let me explain.

Gretchen Reese (05:00):

Low emission zones are designated areas, commonly the greater area surrounding a dense city center, uh, where polluting vehicles, which are more often than not internal combustion engines of the larger variety, like class 7, class 8, but in other cities like London, travel all the way down to the regular cars that consumers like you and me drive, are resi- are restricted or entirely prohibited. And these areas allow access to only vehicles that set certain emission standards, like, um, electric, hybrid, alternative fuel vehicles. But vehicles that don’t meet these requirements, it’s not that you’re not allowed into the zones, but they will be fined or penalized for entering low emission zones during either specified hours, or potentially you’d be exempt by, you know, paying a daily fee. Almost kind of like an entry fee.

Gretchen Reese (05:50):

Some cities even offer the option of retrofitting higher emission vehicles with diesel particulate filters to meet the standards that they’ve set for their city. Um, but I’m sure probably many of you are asking, “What’s the point?” I mean, you know, why even install these low emission zones in the first place? It’s a pretty simple point to make if you ask me. Uh, the purpose of these restrictions being in- put in place, and also being enforced, is to protect the air quality in big cities and to begin to move towards those net zero emissions goals that many countries have set for the next few decades or even, you know, coming up in the coming years. It’s a- it’s a pretty big leap and a big step, but it could be the first step forward to it.

Gretchen Reese (06:45):

But if these low emission zones aren’t yet in the States, then where are they? Well, low emission zones are… you might hear me refer to them in this episode as LEZs, are quite common throughout Europe and the UK. And as a matter of fact, as of 2019 there were over 300 protected European cities, with more being added every single year, which is no small number. The majority of these green zones are enforced 365 days a year, so every single day, every single year, and they use camera systems to monitor number plates, or license plates, window screen stickers to [inaudible 00:07:22] vehicle compliance. Um, if any of you listening are based in Minneapolis, it’s kind of like the E-ZPass, or the, um… oh, what are they called? The fast lanes that go into downtown, or from downtown, you know, during the week w- the work week where you’re able to purchase, um, a speedy pass and you get access to the express lane, you know, during rush hour. Similar system to that, in terms of monitoring or, you know, toll booths along those lines on freeway systems.

Gretchen Reese (07:50):

And cities like London, Barcelona, Milan in Italy, have some of the largest low emission zones in the world, and have all shown incredibly promising results regarding reduced air pollution and lower NO2 concentration. And in fact, in Greater London alone, which… So, for those of you that aren’t familiar with the structure of the city, you have zones one through seven and then you have Greater London [inaudible 00:08:13] surrounding it, and the zones are basically, um, like, uh, the rings of potential suburbs that you’d still class as perhaps, you know, like, uh, Minneapolis or New York City or Chicago or what not.

Gretchen Reese (08:24):

Um, but anyways, so Greater London alone, NO2 concentration has dropped roughly 44% since the launch of their ultra low emission zone initiative in 2017. And Asian cities like Tokyo, Beijing, Seoul, they all have successful diesel plans in- in place as well. That’s a bit of a tongue twister there. Um, well some Central American cities are actually struggling to put them into place. So you have a few different cities and, you know, multiple different countries, either really, really being successful or really, really struggling. It’s- it’s kind of a toss of a hat depending on the region.

Gretchen Reese (09:00):

For example, Bogota in Colombia has been trying to reduce the number of cars on the road since the ’70s. You know, a lot- a high population, high number of cars can lead to extreme congestion, and just too much traffic in the city or, um, surrounding areas. And they were trying- they have been trying to do this with restrictions based on number plates and closing roads on certain weekdays, although that’s been a bit of a struggle. It hasn’t really helped, um, their deemed issues thus far. Mexico City went for a similar strategy as Bogota and received similarly disappointing results as citizens became pretty smart at how to, um, you know, get around the rules a little bit. They started carpooling, they started taxing, or, you know, buying extra vehicles to avoid the restrictions because apparently, you know, more number plates the, you know, less you have to worry about going into city center.

Gretchen Reese (09:50):

Um, but for these less successful low emission zones strategies, and for the United States who has yet to enforce any type of ban on diesel fuels, I think if we follow the model of European cities or Asian cities these could provide a blueprint for how cities will be l- going forward in the future. And, you know, they actually may provide a glimpse into what urban environments may begin to look like as sustainability commitments begin to approach quickly. Because we all know the deadlines are coming up, especially if the commitments are supposed to be, oh I don’t know, brought forth in 2025, 2030, you know. It’s only four years away, or nine years away. It’s coming up quick.

Gretchen Reese (10:40):

So you might ask, “How is the EU or, you know, European countries, enforcing these restricted zones or low emission zones successfully?” Because that’s, you know, it’s a certainly understandable question to have. I mean, it’s a big area, there’s a lot of people in cities. How do you keep on top of it?

Gretchen Reese (10:58):

So one advantage that European cities have, just to provide a little bit of context, over the rest of the world is time. And in fact, the world’s first low emission zones sprouted in Gothenburg in Sweden in 1996. So surrounding countries have been able to actually watch the results unfold for decades before adopting them- the strategy themselves in recent years. Which, I think, is a pretty big deal if you ask me. It’s almost kind of the, you know, let’s monitor to ensure it works before, you know, we integrate it into our own strategy type deal. And Sweden’s strategy was pretty clear and it was to the point, target the heavy polluters, like diesel trucks, buses, and all vehicles over three and a half tons. The greatest benefit of having implemented the low emission zones so early on is for them it’s normal now, it’s nowhere near a radical notion.

Gretchen Reese (11:47):

Although that’s not to say that they’re entirely without pushback. One of the biggest challenges, I think, that most cities face in trying to implement low emission zones today is the pushback from bigger trucking companies who have to completely rethink their fleet management strategy. What fleet managers need to do is, you know, they need to decide between overhauling their fleet entirely and investing millions into all electric or alternative fuel vehicles, you know, where available because not every single class can be electrified yet. That’s one of the biggest challenges of heavy-duty becoming more sustainable right now. Um, or they can accept the constant fees for continuing to work within the zone. And we all know fees can add up pretty quickly, especially with large fleets in the mix when you have a lot of vehicles going in and out of low emission zones on the daily. Think if you have an urban construction project, the fees will be astronomical.

Gretchen Reese (12:41):

Adding onto that, we all know that there are currently little to no alternatives for many medium duty and heavy-duty vehicles, like I just said. And it begs the question of what are they supposed to do when the low emission zone is implemented? And that’s, you know, whether it’s in Europe or here, what do they do if a low emission zone is implemented in the U.S.? Do cities exempt these vehicles from the ban until they have viable options? Maybe. Do they enforce the ban anyways and let the fleet managers deal with the consequences? Maybe. I mean, we don’t know. But regardless, with many low emission zones being implemented as a transitory phase to a less forgiving zero emission zone, one could say that fleets are actually better off adapting sooner than later, if they can. You know, almost like that saying, “Time to get all your ducks in a row.” Very similar there. If you can, try to create a lower emission strategy for your fleet, now may just be the time to do it.

Gretchen Reese (13:47):

So what about the city’s residents? I’m sure we all wanna know about this because they’re a big part of this too. A big part of low emission zones even being created or widely available. So along with medium duty and heavy-duty fleets, personally I think lawmakers need to think about the residents when creating low emission zones policies. I mean, like I said, they’re a huge part of this aspect. And a major consideration that people need to take into account is the availability of public transportation. Now hear me out on this. Without easily accessible public transportation, low emission zones are extremely detrimental to low income workers who rely on their vehicles for getting to work, can’t afford to replace their internal combustion engine vehicles with EVs or hybrids, or potentially even smaller fleets that just don’t have the profit margins or just the budget margins to be able to keep up with these low emission zones fees.

Gretchen Reese (14:39):

It’s pretty clear to me to see how disproportionately low income residents will be affected by a low emission zone if it doesn’t keep into consideration their ability to get to and from city center or wherever it is that they need to go to work. And policymakers I think can facilitate this transition for low income families or small businesses, smaller fleets, by providing financial support or incentives for purchasing clean vehicles which… if you haven’t read the article that we put out on our site, which is… which I hope you’ve been there before already (laughs), but just in case you haven’t.

Gretchen Reese (15:12):

We did write a piece on the ED tax credits that are, supposedly, going to be going into effect, or are already ef- in effect, um, and how they may change. Granted, this article was from a couple of months ago, and I was speaking to a partner of Utilimarc’s the other day, and he was telling me that there’s set to be another decision on this on the 27th of September. So it’s coming up soon, and we’ll be able to see how potentially there are more incentives for purchasing an electric vehicle, or potentially some tax offsets. We don’t know the particulars yet, but, you know, it could be really, really interesting for fleets looking to electrify, or everyday consumers like you and me.

Gretchen Reese (15:52):

But I’d also love to talk about the benefits for urban cities adopting low emission zones because it’s not just, you know, about the installment of the zone itself. So along with meeting zero emission goals encouraged by the Paris Climate Agreement, low emission zones offer a ton of benefits for cities and their resident’s, right. So it’s not just being able to slap a sticker on your city and saying, “Hey, look. We have low emission zones. Yay us. Go us. Whoop-de-doo.” It’s pretty unsurprising that these zones they’re typically implemented in busy cities. I mean, you know, and it’s the population density argument, you know, as opposed to the- in the countryside because of the just vast amount of people, and the congestion of vehicles in such a small area. Which if you’ve actually seen some of the pictures of some of these massive cities throughout the course of the pandemic, seeing the amount of pollution completely dissipate because people aren’t driving anywhere is pretty phenomenal. So you know that the congestion of traffic in big cities can have a detrimental effect on air quality.

Gretchen Reese (16:55):

And additionally, while many big fleets may be hesitant towards accepting green zones, city residents are typically pretty supportive of them due to the many benefits they provide. So firstly, like I said, better air quality. Reduction of pollution for better air quality is often the most spoken of on this list, and like I said, if you even see pictures of cities that have far less cars at- right now in the pandemic where we are versus at the beginning, it’s pretty astonishing, and, you know, it’s that way for a reason. Transportation is one of the biggest contributors to global air pollution. That’s not a secret. A reduction, or perhaps a total elimination, of polluting vehicles in cities could potentially reduce the amount of toxic pollutants like carbon monoxide and sulfur oxides in the air. Um, one example is the city of Madrid. They saw a record reduction of NO2 concentration by 32% while their LEZ policy was in place, which is pretty phenomenal if you ask me.

Gretchen Reese (17:53):

Next we have the public health argument. So, like we touched on a little bit earlier, air pollution creates smog, which can raise concern for citizens’ health and their lifespan. Which, according to the En- Environmental Defense Fund, nearly 40% of Americans live in areas with unhealthy levels of smog pollution, which is a little scary and also kind of gross. The smog can increase the risk of heart and lung diseases, and can significantly reduce your average lifespan, especially in cities that have high smog pollution rates. Um, and another example, this isn’t necessarily in the U.S., but the city of London, so again back to UK, um, quoted that about 4,000 Londoners died in 2019 due to long-term exposure to the toxic elements in air pollution which cause conditions like cancer, asthma, um, you know, citizens having strokes, or even an increased rate of dementia. Which is very concerning for residents of all ages as exposure over a lifetime in a certain city, whether it’s London or somewhere else, can have extremely detrimental health effects. I mean, no one wants to have a threat to their health if, you know, they can avoid it, right?

Gretchen Reese (19:06):

The third benefit is the speeding up of electrification, which for you sustainability lovers, I know EVs are pretty high on your radar. And, you know, whilst it can be considered a pain, (laughs) and requires a major initial investment for fleet managers to overhaul their current strategies and go completely electric, or even mostly electric for that- for that matter, they’ll likely appreciate having ripped off the bandaid in the long run. I mean, granted, you know, when you were little, you know, it’s not the, “Oh, peel off the bandaid really gently because that’s gonna hurt.” No, you rip it off, it’s done, you can press a cold towel to it and you’re fine.

Gretchen Reese (19:40):

Many cities are calling for a total ban on internal combustion engine vehicles by a certain year. London did that by 2030 and most fleet managers out there know that there’s ultimately no way around the transition to EVs, whether it’s just light-duty, or potentially just light-duty and medium duty, but a lot of them are actually finding that they’re better off phasing out internal combustion engines as soon as possible. Might seem a little bit dramatic, but with the changing environment consistently and sustainability commitments from organizations and manufacturers consistently changing, or new ones popping up, it’s gonna happen, the transition’s gonna happen, but it’s just gonna be the one big bandaid rip and then after that hopefully, hopefully, it’ll be a little bit easier.

Gretchen Reese (20:30):

But, you know, additionally, with so many fleet managers stuck waiting for EVs and their vehicle classes to even hit the market, a global adoption of low emission zones could potentially create an even bigger push for manufacturers to start rolling them out. So, you know, what it might do is actually kind of light the fire under the tail, and really get low- uh, really get manufacturers to start pushing out vehicles for those higher vehicle classes, the ones we’re missing today.

Gretchen Reese (20:59):

The last benefit on my list for today is limiting city congestion, like we’ve kind of spoken about a little bit. And my question to you is, is don’t you ever think that sometimes cities seem a little bit too congested? And I’m not just talking about rush hour traffic here because we all know that that’s bad no matter where you are. But restrictions on vehicle movement within b- busy cities will also be useful in cutting down on heavy traffic. In addition to reducing the amount of vehicles emitting toxic pollutants in the air, a less congested city would certainly improve the quality of life for residents. Imagine the picturesque storybook towns where everyone bikes or walks around their communities and their local favorite spots. It might not be realistic for every city, I mean, that’s true, but the sentiment is still there, right. Especially with the rise of bike sharing in major- in major cities, cities are starting to see residents reclaim their streets for bicycles and foot traffic over motorized vehicles.

Gretchen Reese (21:57):

One of London’s goals in particular is to see citizens take 80% of trips on- across London on foot, you know, by bicycling across the city or on mass transport. And one thing, very, very interesting, um… at least I thought. Um, I don’t know how many of you keep up with your London news. I certainly do because I lived there for a few years, but for those of you that are familiar with the city, one of their biggest intersections… this is pretty close to the West End, um, if I had to do my internal city map that I’m currently trying to picture. Um, it’s called Oxford Circus. Oxford Circus is one of the busiest intersections in the entire city, um, kinda similar to Piccadilly Circus. Two different circuses, but not the actual big top tents that some of you may think about. Um, but anyways, Oxford Circus is the, um, intersection of Regent Street and Oxford Street, two of the major shopping streets in the city where a lot of people, you know, take a lot of pictures, it’s very busy, and it’s probably one of the most photographed intersections in the city, aside from Piccadilly Circus, by the West End.

Gretchen Reese (23:01):

My point of this is, is they’re considering… or actually no, they’re not just considering. They’re putting into place the pedestrianization of Oxford Circus by, I think it’s- it might be December of this year. It’s coming up pretty quickly. But they’re taking out all vehicles for that intersection, one, to make it more accessible to pedestrians because, you know, busy intersection and short t- shortly timed streetlights, you know, it’s dangerous for pedestrians, or it can be. But also, the goal was to try and create more walking traffic for Piccadilly Circus and the West End as a whole. But it’ll be interesting to see it go because it is one of the biggest, um, biggest intersections for vehicle traffic right now.

Gretchen Reese (23:56):

We know that these low emission zones are succeeding in Europe and abroad, but my question is is, when will we be seeing these in the U.S.? Like I said before, currently there are no cities implementing any type of ban on diesel vehicles in the U.S. as the general priorities have pointed more towards EV implementation and renewal energy sources rather than creating green zones specifically. So different focus in the sustainability movement, but, you know, kind of along the same lines. The thing is is that we know that creating sustainable government policies requires a multifaceted approach, it can’t just be one size fits all, especially when you take into account townships and counties and cities and states and federal government. But the thing is is that low emission zones can be a facet, or an entirely additional tool, for policymakers to include.

Gretchen Reese (24:49):

One city that’s starting to make strides for cleaner air is Santa Monica in California. And this city is the first to map out a zero emission delivery zone, meaning that all goods delivered within the one mile radius need to arrive in a zero emission vehicle, whether that be by electric car or truck or by bicycle or an electric delivery van, which is pretty fascinating if you ask me. This policy was implemented in part to comply with LA’s goal of reducing emissions by 25% by the time that the Olympics are to be held there in 2028. And whilst a low emission zone targeting only delivery vehicles can seem to just hit the tip of a much lar- larger iceberg, Santa Monica will serve as a bit of a guinea pig, so to say, for Los Angeles and other American cities, as they work out the kinks of this new model. In the meantime, most American cities are focused on challenges like electrifying municipality fleets and banning the sale of new internal combustion vehicles, as California plans to do by 2035.

Gretchen Reese (26:02):

But I’m sure what you’re all here for, what do low emission zones mean for global sustainability? Well, as we’ve chatted about throughout this entire episode, green zones in major cities are proving to be quite effective and have shown promising results near immediate from the time of their implementation. Since electric powered trucks and heavy-duty vehicles have been slow to roll out, the biggest barrier now is lack of available alternatives, which I’m sure everyone listening to this podcast knows by now. However, cities looking for an immediate solution can still enforce green zones, should they choose, for pass- passenger vehicles. Yikes. (laughs) light-duty trucks and city buses. Initiatives don’t have to be all or nothing, despite what many might think. And from a global standpoint, the reduction of greenhouse gases in areas that are currently so concentrated with these toxic pollutants would be significant for global health and for a global reduction of greenhouse gases.

Gretchen Reese (26:57):

But all things considered, it’s pretty clear that the U.S. has some catching up to do compared with other leading countries around the world. However, I think that in the coming decade as we see lawmakers buckling down on getting their cities and municipalities to net zero emissions, that low emission zones will start to become the norm in higher density areas, which I think could potentially be a good thing.

Gretchen Reese (27:17):

But I wanna hear your thoughts on the topic. Do you think that low or even zero emission zones are the answer for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.? Do you think that they’re a viable option without having the necessary alternatives for polluting, uh, fuel powered vehicles? Let me know what you think. Send me an email, tag me on LinkedIn, or use the hashtag UtilimarcFleetFYIs. I’m so looking forward to what you have to say. I love to scroll through all of the comments every single week just to see what’s going on, what your opinions are, and what you think.

Gretchen Reese (27:46):

But I’ll see you next week for the next episode in our global sustainability series. I hope you’re looking forward to it as much as I am. But until next time, I’ll be in your headphones, and that’s it for me this week. Ciao.

Gretchen Reese (28:01):

Hey there. I think this is the time that I should queue the virtual high five because you’ve just finished listening to another episode of the Fleet FYIs podcast. If you’re already wanting more content, head over to, which is Utilimarc with a C, for the show notes and extra insights coming straight from our analysts to you. That’s all from me this week, so until next time. I’ll catch you later.

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Gretchen Reese

Growth Marketing Manager

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