Ultra Low Emission Zone sign, London. Photo: EURIST e.v on Flickr

The debate over traffic reduction measures is generating a lot of heat and some dubious politics, so Elaine Graham-Leigh examines some of the issues

The debate over the planned extension of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to the outer boroughs has rapidly become toxic, both online and in real life. In this, it follows the debates over traffic reduction measures like low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs), which have seen road closure infrastructure vandalised and set on fire, and protests colonised by anti-vaxxers and theorists about climate lockdowns. All this heat polarises the debate and hides the fact that there are real issues here.

We all know that air pollution kills, with around 4,000 deaths in London each year attributable to air pollution. Transport for London (TfL) claims that the ULEZ as introduced in central London in 2019 and expanded to cover inner London in 2021 has made a significant positive impact on the killer emissions. They also claim that it has had a slight impact on carbon emissions, which given that transport is the single largest carbon emitting sector, is important, although the 4% reduction they highlight is hardly impressive.

The ULEZ achieves these improvements by charging drivers of cars and vans with the highest levels of emissions to enter or move about within the zone. Almost all petrol cars still on the roads will meet the standard, but diesel vehicles are more likely to be caught by the restrictions. Petrol cars built after 2006 will probably be compliant, whereas for diesel vehicles, the equivalent date is 2016. TFL does have a scrappage scheme for people on benefits and small businesses/sole traders, but this won’t cover everyone affected and only applies to people based in London. If you’re outside Greater London but need to carry on driving your elderly van into the zone, then you’re on your own.

ULEZ and social justice

Opponents of the zone, as with measures like the LTNs, often argue against them on social-justice grounds, on behalf of the poor and disabled. This can sometimes come across as a disingenuous attempt to seize the moral high ground in the debate. It is certainly interesting to see this argument being advanced by local Tories who have not shown any noticeable concern for the poor and disabled when they’re supporting their party’s punitive policies. It is also an argument that ignores the fact that in London at least, the poorest people as a group are the least likely to have access to a car.

It is true, however, that any policy that uses ability to pay as a way of discouraging a particular activity is going to discriminate against those who can’t pay. TfL itself say that the daily charge for driving a non-compliant vehicle in the ULEZ is supposed to discourage driving: they would rather people replace their vehicles than pay the charge. That makes not having to buy a new car a privilege people can pay for, which is hardly equitable.

There is also the issue of enforcement. The ULEZ is maintained by a network of CCTV cameras which work by numberplate recognition to pick up vehicles which aren’t compliant and check if their drivers have paid the charge. TfL said last year that they were considering whether they could give the Met Police access to this data, but it would be surprising if they concluded that the answer was no. It isn’t necessary to posit fifteen-minute cities (the idea that, reversing the trend for out-of-town shopping centres, people should be able to find necessities within a fifteen-minute walk of their homes) as the first step into dystopia to see this as a disturbing increase in the surveillance of Londoners and not something about which we should be blasé.

Strictly speaking, the ULEZ expansion isn’t a traffic reduction measure on its own, but it is certainly seen by those arguing against ‘the war on the motorist’ as part of a package of anti-car initiatives, along with LTNs, school streets (closing roads around schools during school start and finish times), cycle lanes and fifteen-minute cities. The aim of all of these is supposed to be to get people out of their cars, but that of course can only happen if there are credible alternatives.

Public transport is the answer

London’s public transport is streets ahead of that provided in most of the rest of the country, but that doesn’t mean it can yet compete with car travel everywhere, particularly in outer London and for radial journeys. That wouldn’t matter so much if the direction of travel was towards improvements, but the anti-traffic measures come at a time when TfL’s funding for public transport is being dramatically cut. While the worst bus service cuts proposed last year have been avoided for now, Londoners are still facing bus frequencies getting worse, more Tube delays as maintenance and improvement works are mothballed and more TfL attacks on the terms and conditions of their workforce in Aslef and the RMT.

None of this is calculated to encourage people to get out of their cars and use public transport. It is noticeable that TfL itself seems to be sending this message. If you follow the link on its ULEZ site for support for greener forms of transport, it’s a page listing offers for various third-party companies, mostly bike hire and purchase. If TfL itself isn’t pushing its own public transport system as an alternative to paying the ULEZ, the chances of modal shift from car to bus and Tube don’t look good.

The expansion of the ULEZ could have been an uncontroversial step towards better air quality and lower carbon emissions. That it has become part of the wider furore about traffic reduction measures is at least partly because people perceive that environmental concerns are being used as a cover for simply making their lives even more difficult. That’s the atmosphere which can lead people to reject the reality of the climate crisis as all a con, an attempt on the part of government to impose climate lockdowns. It’s a gift to the far-right, who have been in evidence in some anti-LTN and anti-ULEZ protests.

The answer to this has to be to fight for better public transport; for a bus, Tube and train system so good, so reliable and so cheap that it really is easier for everyone, outer Londoners included, to leave the car at home. It’s only by defending inclusive, communal transport options that we will have a chance of avoiding further divisive car wars.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press. 

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