bikes on a bike lane, next to a busy street

Mastering mobility: low emissions zones

Many European cities face air quality problems related to road transport, with a staggering 94% of the urban population exposed to NO2 (nitrogen dioxide) pollution levels higher than the World Health Organisation’s guidelines. The European Environment Agency recently reported that exposure to fine particulate matter, from transport and other various sources, resulted in 307,000 premature deaths in the 27 EU Member States in 2019.

To mitigate these serious health concerns, redistribute public space back to citizens, improve road safety and limit traffic congestion, EU countries are increasingly implementing Urban Vehicle Access Regulations (UVARs). UVARs are multifaceted as they aim to address the various aspects of air pollution within cities; but can be broken into five main categories: tolling/congestion charging, pedestrian areas, parking schemes, limited traffic zones, and low emission zones. In Europe, 73% of UVARs are low and zero emission zones.

But what exactly are low emission zones, and how are they associated with the improvement of urban air quality?

What are low emissions zones?

As previously mentioned, low emission zones are one type of Urban Vehicle Access Regulations, which are employed to address air quality and pollution issues in cities.

Low emission zones (also referred to as LEZs) are permanent or temporary defined geographical areas where vehicles that do not meet certain emissions regulations are restricted or deterred. These zones favour vehicles with no or low tailpipe emissions, such as electric vehicles, hybrids, and micromobility vehicles like bicycles and scooters. Additionally, some low emission zones go one step further to be zero emission zones, in which all vehicles with internal combustion engines are barred and only vehicles that are truly emission-free are allowed entry.

Unlike limited traffic zones, like pedestrianised streets, that only allow motorists with a permit; most low emission zones are focused on eliminating non-compliant vehicles entirely (though there are some exceptions).

The benefits of low emissions zones

The implementation of low emission zones offers numerous and wide-ranging benefits.

Firstly, as low emissions zones completely eliminate motorised traffic of specified emissions levels in certain areas, the immediate objective of reducing transport-related polluting gases and airborne dust is realised.

Secondly, with fewer vehicles on the road, traffic congestion is eased, and the remaining vehicles find greater freedom of movement. However, as vehicle fleets are getting cleaner, such benefits may prove short-lived if not flanked with complementary measures such as congestion charging or urban toll systems.

Additionally, in the short-term when non-compliant vehicles access the low emission zone, income for municipal administrations will be generated through the fines applied. In the long-term, improved air quality offers a more attractive living, working and leisure environment; drawing investment in the area and city.

Harnessing the power of low emission zones

Insights presented in EIT Urban Mobility’s ‘Urban vehicle access regulations: from design to implementation’ report highlight the importance of a legal framework that enables LEZs and strong political commitment as prerequisites for success. Additionally, the discussions facilitated by EIT Urban Mobility in their June 2022 workshop found that low emission zones are most effective when implemented in combination with other UVARs, such as limited traffic zones or pedestrian areas.

Additionally, as regulations change from country to country and city to city, access to information about local requirements is important to mitigate complaints and offer transparency for motorists. Several legislative acts and initiatives are currently underway in order to provide greater data sharing, such as the UVAR Box Project.

The future of low emission zones

According to the Clean Cities Campaign, 228 low emission zones were active across the EU in 2019. Upon publication of their study ‘Clean Cities: The development trends of low and zero-emission zones in Europe’ in 2022, 320 were active, a 40% increase.

In Barcelona, the low emission zone within the city’s ring roads includes an area of more than 95 square kilometres. In 2019, Milan launched one of the largest low emission zones in Europe, covering roughly 70% of the city area, encompassing 97% of the population and 132 square kilometres. In May 2023, Eastern Europe introduced their first low emission zones, with Warsaw, Sofia and Riga rolling out regulations to increase air quality and reduce pollution.

In the next several years, as cities within the European Union get more aggressive with their decarbonisation plans, the Clean Cities Campaign anticipates further growth of low emission zones. Between 2022 and 2025, they predict a 58% increase, for over 500 low emission zones within the EU.

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