Last week Sadiq Khan announced that London’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) will be extended from August, meaning those driving older, more polluting cars will be charged £12.50 a day to use their vehicles anywhere across the Capital. It has predictably been met with mixed reviews and will likely remain a controversial topic for some time, but ultimately it is a huge step in the right direction. Here are three reasons why:
1. ULEZ is simultaneously a health and environmental policy
Poor air quality, which is in part caused by transport emissions, can lead to serious health problems. In the UK, toxic air is the cause of an estimated 28,000-36,000 deaths a year, with a disproportionate number of these taking place in London. The poor air quality levels observed in the capital are often associated with driving and congestion, which means meeting London’s net zero targets by 2030 will require a significant reduction in private car use.
Despite new post-pandemic norms such as working from home, congestion levels are already above pre-pandemic levels. This only highlights the importance of bold policies, such as the ULEZ expansion, towards containing the costs associated with driving and air pollution.
2. ULEZ does not disproportionately hurt the poorest
One frequent criticism of the ULEZ is that it will unfairly impact lower-income households that cannot afford cleaner vehicles that are exempt from charges. However, this argument fails to address the distributional impacts of poor air quality in British cities.
First, air pollution disproportionally affects the poorest, especially in London. Previous analysis from the Centre for Cities has shown that NO2 concentrations are 25 per cent higher in the poorest neighbourhoods of London – where households are less likely to own a car.
Second, concerns around fairness should be addressed with the implementation of supportive policies, rather than inaction. For example, London is introducing a £110m scrappage scheme to help targeted groups replace their old private vehicles or opt for public transport.
3. ULEZ is not a money-making scheme but a proven means of cleaning London’s air
The ongoing experience with the ULEZ – with its introduction and subsequent expansion – shows this is an effective policy to clean up the air. This is because most drivers respond and adapt to the policy fairly quickly.
Within six months of the previous ULEZ expansion in October 2021, 94 per cent of the vehicles were compliant with the rules and there were 67,000 fewer non-compliant vehicles a day. This shows that ULEZ should not be interpreted merely as a policy to raise local revenues (especially because implementation is costly) but a genuinely effective means of improving air quality.
London (and Birmingham’s) experiences should serve as inspiration for other cities
The ULEZ expansion will go a long way in improving the health and outcomes of Londoners while reducing driving and congestion. Last year, Birmingham took a similar position by introducing its Clean Air Zone, which also made positive impacts on air quality.
Now it is time for more cities to take note and follow suit.