Understanding Urban Vehicle Access Restrictions in Europe

While urban vehicle access restrictions can be good for our health and the environment, are they effective in all European cities? We’ll investigate some of the main concerns related to these restrictions and provide possible solutions.

Vehicle Access Regulations in Regions and Cities

Emission control legislation for vehicles in Europe has been successful in lowering emissions, although not as fast as expected and only for new vehicles. Overall, the language of this legislation has been clear, and it has covered the whole of the European Union.

In recent years, Low Emission Zones (LEZs), sometimes known as Clean Air Zones (CAZs) have been introduced with requirements varying from city to city and country to country. These zones have generally been successful and public health improvements are expected as a result. The variety of urban vehicle access regulations does however make it difficult to have a clear view of the overall situation. 

Diesel ‘bans’: A confusing term

The use of the word ‘ban’ can be confusing, as different authorities can mean different things by the term. In most cases, it should actually be more accurately described as a local ban on older diesels.

A notable exception is the city of Bristol in the UK, which in November 2019 agreed to (subject to UK Government approval) an outright ban on all diesel cars at certain times of day, irrespective of their emissions. At the time, this was the only such proposal in the UK, as other authorities recognised that the newest diesels could emit just as little as their petrol equivalents. If approved, it would give rise to situations where petrol cars with high NOx emissions are allowed into the city, whereas diesels with very low emissions are not, as pointed out by the Allow Independent Road-testing (AIR) organisation. Inconsistencies such as this could also happen in the French Crit’Air scheme.

The Bristol approach stands in contradiction to what the German motoring organisation ADAC foresees. It believes that, while some Euro 6 vehicles could join a restricted list, there is only a low risk of Euro 6d-temp or 6d vehicles being banned in the next few years. The reason is that these will have been certified in real-world driving conditions and shown to have low emissions, with many as low as or lower than their petrol equivalents.

Compliance and enforcement: A double challenge for urban access restrictions

Whatever the terminology used, compliance and enforcement with a low emission or environment zone can be challenging. Some stakeholders point to difficulties as a result of decentralised decision-making leading to inconsistent standards and timing between cities. For example, companies with fleets of vehicles registered under different emissions standards will have to carefully plan where they deploy them, and individuals travelling from city to city could also face difficulties understanding restrictions when deciding how best to travel. Environmental NGO Transport & Environment (T&E) on the other hand, says that ‘cities should be free to design their urban vehicle access restriction policies as they see fit the local circumstances, public health and environment.’

Others, especially trade associations representing businesses, suggest that there can be an unfair burden on small businesses in particular, who may face significant costs to upgrade or replace vehicles.

Unless automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) is in place, as it is in London, enforcement of zones is a potential issue for a number of reasons. It is clear that physical vehicle checks would be time-consuming and would potentially make a LEZ not as effective as intended. ANPR has been proposed in Germany but will be contested in Court due to ‘data privacy’ concerns. T&E proposes the use of remote sensing combined with ANPR to identify individual vehicles. As we have seen above however, this would likely face challenges in some areas.

Research suggests that including cars as well as heavy vehicles in access restrictions is more effective in reducing air pollution in cities. The level of standards introduced in specific countries and in Europe as a whole, along with enforcement methods, can all have an impact on the effectiveness of zones regulating access to motor vehicles. Formulating policy that balances the impacts on and needs of citizens, businesses and the environment is not straightforward, but clarity is important to ensure that drivers are able to understand where they can drive, now and in the future.

urban vehicle access restrictions