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ULEZ: Where do we go from here?


ULEZ sign in green and white with a white building in the background


Jack Smith in a navy jumper in the office with wooden storage and plants behind

Jack Smith

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Mathew Foreman in a short with a plant / grass wall behind

Matthew Foreman

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Cathal O’Regan

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The expansion of the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) may not be as universally popular as ice cream during a hot London summer. However, it is an ambitious step on the road to reducing carbon emissions in the Greater London area – something which will improve air quality and help reduce the impact of the extreme summer heat we’ve experienced over the last few years.

Pioneered by the Mayor of London, the ULEZ is a bold step toward improving air quality in the capital. From 29 August 2023, it will encompass all London boroughs with supporting legislation imposing a daily charge of £12.50 on the most polluting vehicles in the region. Ultimately, it aims to protect millions of Londoners from harmful emissions and particulates such as nitrogen oxide that are produced by vehicles and which have been linked to harmful diseases and deaths. There’s no doubt that it is a landmark policy for London, but it does raise the question: what are the implications of this expansion for the city's planning and transportation system?

To those of us working in the planning and transport sectors, it’s clear that this piece of legislation must work in tandem with good transportation planning systems to be holistically successful.

The expansion of the ULEZ ties in with the overarching shifts in transport policy since 2017 – particularly the new London Plan (the overall strategic plan for London which was formally adopted in March 2021), and the Mayor’s Transport Strategy (which includes the expansion of ULEZ).

The London Plan aims to ensure that new developments are designed and built, as far as is possible, to improve local air quality and reduce the extent to which the public are exposed. It also includes the Healthy Streets Approach, a system of policies and strategies to help Londoners walk, cycle and use public transport instead of cars. The purpose of the Healthy Streets Approach is not to provide an idealised vision for a model street, it is a long-term plan for improving people’s experience of the city, helping everyone get more active and enjoy the health benefits of being outdoors in London.

The Healthy Streets Approach comprises ten Healthy Streets Indicators, one of which is clean air. Other Healthy Streets indicators focus on creating better street environments for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users, ultimately reducing the dominance of the private vehicle, which supports the overall purpose of ULEZ in providing cleaner air for Londoners. The pedestrianisation of town centres and high streets throughout London also plays a role in improving air quality, alongside the ULEZ scheme.

The Mayor’s Transport Strategy sets a target of 80% of all journeys in London being made on foot, by cycle or using public transport by 2041. In 2019 (pre-Covid), 63% of journeys in London were undertaken by non-car and active travel modes. However, there is generally a higher uptake of walking and cycling in inner London boroughs compared to outer London boroughs, where private vehicles dominate the streetscape.

According to the Mayor’s Transport Strategy, approximately one third of CO2 emissions in London's outer boroughs are generated by cars. Long-term improvements to public transport services will assist in reducing car dependency in these areas, helping to improve air quality as a result. In the short term however, it is evident that the expansion of ULEZ will bring immediate improvements in air quality to all Greater London boroughs, an overwhelmingly positive stride to making London air more healthy.

The ULEZ expansion is predicted to save nearly 27,000 tonnes of CO2 in outer London in its first year - more than double that which the central London ULEZ achieved in its first year of operation according to Transport for London data. In line with the ULEZ expansion and a further move away from a car-filled London, the Mayor has committed to an introduction of a million extra kilometres of bus lanes in outer London. The TfL bus fleet already meets ULEZ compliancy standards as of 2021, and £1billion has been budgeted towards the electrification of its' 9,000 buses to help ensure they all meet zero emission targets by 2037.

It's clear that the ULEZ expansion will result a reduction in emissions and the adverse health effects associated with poor air quality, but is this simply a band-aid solution?

It’s no secret that the Mayor's expansion of ULEZ expansion has been an unpopular decision and has been contested by some London boroughs. The objections could be seen as NIMBYISM (not in my back yard-ism) or councils trying to protect low-income residents who depend on their non-compliant cars. Against the backdrop of a cost-of-living crisis, this increased fee may be detrimental. The expansion has also been met by an equal mixture of positive hopes for higher air-quality and division amongst road-users who see the expansion as politically motivated. Whichever side of the argument you fall on, air pollution causes thousands of Londoners to die prematurely each year or to develop life-changing illnesses such as cancer, lung disease, dementia, and asthma. For this reason, London is taking bold actions now.

So, how does the expansion affect low-income residents or commuters who are not eligible for the scrappage scheme but depend on their vehicle for professional or domestic reasons. Residents within the London commuter belt who are not within one of the 32 London boroughs but are functionally part of the London economy will feel the full effect of the expansion but without any of the relief.

As a result, while greener vehicle technology certainly plays a role, it cannot constitute the complete solution on its own. Continued planning and transport solutions are needed now more than ever. ULEZ is supported by many future London Plan policies that include several dimensions and components including:

  • An environment that promotes and accommodates non-motorised modes of transport like cycling and walking.
  • Target of 80% of all journeys to be made on foot, by cycle or public transport by 2041.
  • Convenient accessibility to all communities, whether by walking, cycling, or utilising public transit.
  • Local transport networks that require robust integration with regional networks.

Overall, reduced carbon emissions and cleaner air is hard to argue against - so why would you? The ULEZ expansion is an opportunity for a healthier London and cleaner city, but a cleaner city must also be a permeable city for sustainable expansion and growth. It will be interesting to see how the ULEZ expansion will develop in the coming years.

Should you have insights or require advice regarding the ULEZ expansion or other related topics, please don’t hesitate to reach out to the Cundall Transportation, Air Quality, and Planning Consultancy Teams.