This blog was written by Yiqian Zhang, Senior Officer, Sustainable Mobility at ICLEI World Secretariat.
Ninety-one percent of the world’s population lives in places where air pollution levels exceed the guideline limits of the World Health Organization. Every year, long-term exposure to ambient air pollution causes 4.2 million deaths, respiratory, and cardiovascular diseases among other health issues. It is evident that air pollution disproportionately affects the most vulnerable and is felt strongest in disadvantaged neighborhoods where road traffic is intense. Conversely, they are the least likely to own cars themselves. In response to the looming air quality crisis, low emission zones (LEZs), i.e. where the most polluting vehicles are prohibited from traveling, have become a widespread policy instrument to improve air quality and protect public health.
Air quality, public health and climate: A strong case for LEZs
Currently, more than 250 LEZs have been implemented in many cities in Europe with prominent examples in London, Brussels, Barcelona, Oslo, and Paris. Outside of Europe, Seoul started to limit the operation of old and polluting cars in the designated “Green Transport zone” (GTZ) in December 2019. Considering the contribution of freight transport to toxic air and greenhouse gas emissions, it is unsurprising that some cities have chosen to establish zones focusing on freight vehicles, i.e. zero-emission zones for freight (ZEZ-Fs). The Dutch Government has announced plans to implement ZEZ-Fs in 30-40 cities by 2025 and Chinese cities such as Foshan have also planned to establish zones focusing on freight.
LEZs have been proved to be effective in reducing air pollution. In Brussels-Capital Region, it is estimated that between June 2018 and October 2020, the number of old diesel vehicles circulating on the road has fallen significantly and the emissions of air pollutants have decreased: 9% nitrogen oxides (NOx), 17% fine particles (PM2.5) and 38% black carbon particles. In addition, the Brussels Environment has projected that the LEZ scheme will reduce its NOx emissions by 66% by 2015 compared to the 2015 level. In Seoul, preliminary analysis indicates that between 2019 and 2020, the introduction of GTZ has contributed to a reduction in traffic flows in the downtown area by 13.8%, and that of Grade 5 vehicles has reduced by 23.5%; besides, the PM10 has reduced by 16.7% and PM2.5 reduced by 16%.
An equity-centered approach: How to enable a just transition
LEZs have the potential to alter the operation of transportation systems significantly, but the impacts of the schemes are often complex. Critical perspectives have implied that the policy could have negative impacts that are unevenly distributed across the population. The equity considerations associated with the LEZ scheme must be addressed.
1. A planning process that involves the identification of equity issues and the responses might be the first step. A feasibility study could help cities define the local conditions based on geography, spatial distribution of population, traffic volumes and vehicle emissions. In planning for its pilot ZEZ, the Oslo City Council commissioned the Urban Environment Agency and the Climate Agency to formulate feasible scheme options. 7 different concepts were compared based on 11 assessment criteria in a comprehensive report (Norwegian).
2. This can be followed by public communication and consultation with affected groups to address concerns, increase awareness and acceptance. As an example of good practice in Spain, Barcelona has developed an information website (zbe.barcelona) to promote the understanding of how the LEZ scheme will work, the benefits it will deliver, and to collect feedback and address concerns. The collected data allows for an informative evaluation process and further improvement. As of Jan 2022, the accumulated visits on the platform have exceeded 1.2 million records and more than 5,000 calls have been answered each month.
3. Furthermore, complementary measures should be introduced to ensure the benefits are equitable. This could include subsidies for small businesses to get access to clean vehicles (scrappage schemes), incentives to use other sustainable modes of transport, ensuring bus routes reach low-income areas, and deploying flexible mobility solutions to increase the accessibility of the city center for disabled people, etc. Cities like London provide discounts and exemptions for people with reduced mobility or health requirements, while Seoul provides financial support for the residents inside the GTZ switching to cleaner vehicles, apart from efforts to increase public bikes, improve bike lanes, and provide shared electric cars.
Successful international experience shows that if well-designed, LEZs are not only effective in improving health and air quality, but also facilitating increased equity and access for all. While LEZs might not be the silver bullet to equitable transportation, city leaders and planners should look at measuring and assessing equity early in the planning process and adjust the scheme throughout its implementation and operation phase. And it must also be supported by measures to encourage ecomobility and restrain private car ownership.
Some of the solutions mentioned above were deliberated at the session Urban Freight: How to Deliver Reduced Carbon Emissions at theTransforming Transport 2022 Conference. To ensure equitable outcomes, it is important that cities continue to take a people-centered approach to sustainable urban mobility.
Cover image credit: Robert Ramos / AMB
The impacts of Brussel’s LEZ on emissions from road transport.
Seoul’s LEZ: According to the Ministry of Environment guidelines, a Grade 5 vehicle refers to a small- to mid-size diesel car released before July 2002 or a gas-powered vehicle made before 1987. For large and extra-large vehicles, it refers to a diesel car released before July 2002 and a gas-powered car from before 2000. Read more on the ICLEI case study: Seoul on the green move: Leveraging electric mobility for a sustainable city. Jan 2022.
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