Emerging practices in Low Emission Zones throughout Europe

April 14, 2020
As the European continent pushes to a greener future, nations, regions and cities are developing schemes to improve air quality and reduce congestion.

Air quality has become an area of particular contemporary public concern in Europe. This can be partially related to the intense debate generated following the diesel engine emissions controversy that started in 2015.

General atmospheric emissions have declined over the years in most of the continent as a result of the shift to renewables for energy production and decline in the most polluting heavy industry. Industrialization in global emerging economies has reminded Europeans of what earlier phases of poor air quality was  like only a few generations ago.

The case has been made of the link between poor air quality and public health. This has highly resonated with people across Europe and spurred action to improve the long-term quality of life of those who would otherwise be impacted by poor air quality.

As more people shift to using public transport and sustainable travel modes, such as walking and cycling, the quality of the air becomes more apparent as a user of the streetscape. Particularly, as many vehicles become cleaner or zero emission – ironically this can make a user  more sensitive and aware of the vehicles that are visibly producing pollution.

European standards for vehicle emissions have been developed and adopted across industry and widely communicated. This standardized language forms the basis for discussions on continent-wide progress on managing improvements to the vehicle fleet. These European standards are typically referred to as “EURO” engine standards.

Air quality is also measured with European standardized tests and measures while the European Union (EU) has placed a focus on measuring and then improving air quality in the most polluted areas of the continent and then bringing ever-increasing improvements to all areas.

It should be noted that even in some of the cleanest overall areas of Europe, such as Sweden, the sense is still that this is a critically important issue and that more can and should be done and activity is underway to further improve  the quality of the local air.

While progress is occurring at a European level, nations, regions, as well as cities are tackling the issue of air quality via an increasing number of initiatives. Cities are instituting forms of Low (or Zero) Emission Zones.

London, UK, began operating a Congestion Charging scheme in 2003. The original scheme has evolved over the years from its starting focus on central area congestion and enabling more efficient bus services, to, in effect, an emissions charging scheme using a series of Low Emission Zones across central, inner, as well as Greater London.

The weekday only scheme uses camera-based number plate recognition and has raised several billion pounds to support other sustainable transport modes in the city.

In 2008, specific Low Emissions Zones began to be implemented in London starting with a ban on the most polluting vehicles, measured according to EURO vehicle emission standards, across all of Greater London. An Ultra Low Emission District was added in 2013 in Central London, which created enhanced emission regulations in the Congestion Charge area. This was then expanded to a 24/7restriction in Central London in 2019 and will be expanded again in 2021 to a larger inner London area.

Even with the success of the London charging schemes in raising revenue and changing behavior, the level of congestion in Central London is as intense now as it was before the schemes began. This is due to several vehicles that are offered exceptions, increasing numbers of delivery and ridesharing vehicles, as well as reductions in road space particularly due to cycling infrastructure. This is impacting the attractiveness and, thus ridership of the key public transport bus network. Rising congestion is increasing air quality challenges, even as more vehicles move to zeroemission propulsion. The city also faces the issue of the choice of technology to operate such large and heavily used schemes. Camera-based monitoring is no longer likely the most efficient option.

Air quality issues in a UK context have led to concern about the health impacts of these issues. Newly enabled regional city mayors in many of the UK’s larger cities are using their new powers to push for local Low Emission Zones. The resulting vehicle restrictions and costs to drivers are controversial, but being pursued. For example, the West Midlands will proceed with a zone in the inner city of Birmingham later in 2020, following a delay due to enforcement technology.

Stuttgart is a major industrial city in southwestern Germany. It is home to both Porsche and Daimler. Much of the city sits in a low-lying area adjacent to the River Neckar and surrounded by hills. The terrain, along with industry and heavy traffic, has created a persistent problem of air quality with high levels of particulates.

Local sensitivity to the issue has resulted in the city implementing a number of initiatives including a Low Emission Zone “Umweltzone” in 2008 across the city.

Minimum vehicles standards are in place to enter the zone. This is controlled via vehicle windscreen stickers which confirm the EURO status of the vehicle’s engine and  legality to enter restricted emission zones. The vehicle stickers are part of a national scheme in Germany and can be used in a range of cities that are setting up schemes comparable to that in Stuttgart. The standards are gradually being tightened over the years reflecting increasing capabilities of the EURO category engines.

The city also operates a voluntary “Feinstaubalarm” (Smog Alarm) program for the extended periods of time when a temperature inversion is likely to increase fine dust particle concentrations in the urban area. Most of the 2019/20 winter has been one of these events. During this period people are asked to consider alternatives to driving, prevent unnecessary smoke events (such as via home fireplaces) and use public transport – extra discounts are offered.

Many German cities have now implemented or are planning variations of Low Emission Zones and vehicle bans. It can be expected that these types of schemes will be the norm in a few years and in practice some type of national restriction or even EU level schemes will eventually be put in place.

Milan, Italy’s largest urban area, is in the midst of the industrial and densely populated Po Valley region of northern Italy. With high mountains on either side of the valley and its extensive industry, Milan has long-term air pollution issues.

A congestion charge, “Area C” scheme,” was implemented in 2012 replacing an earlier charge in the central city. A threesquaremile area is monitored by cameras at “gates” in order to charge vehicles. As well as dealing with the issue of congestion, the charge leads to reductions in local air pollution and raises dedicated funds for public transport and other sustainable modes.

The scheme operates throughout each weekday and charges vehicles €5 (US$5.58) per day while also banning certain categories of the most polluting EURO engines and offering free access to electric and certain other low emission vehicles. Residents within the zone are also offered discounts.

Following the success of the Area C scheme, a larger “Area B” scheme was implemented in February 2019 covering 70square miles of most of the city of Milan, which restricts access to the most pollution classes of older polluting vehicles throughout weekdays. The system is enforced by cameras.

In Sweden, Stockholm implemented a city-wide congestion charging scheme in 2007. It covers access and egress to much of the inner city including the peripheral orbital highway. Funds are dedicated to improving transport infrastructure in the region while the charge acts as a congestion reduction and environmental improvement measure. The scheme uses variable time pricing based on licence plate recognition.

While Stockholm is relatively clean as a city, the relative sensitivity to air quality has created pressure for the congestion charging scheme. Also, somewhat uniquely in Europe, the historic city center is bisected by a high speed, busy highway corridor which brings significant environmental impact to this sensitive area.

In Belgium, the largest two cities, Brussels and Antwerp, have both implemented Low Emission Zones over the past three years.

Antwerp, one of the  largest ports in Belgium and a major industrial center which is 60 miles south of the equally large port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, suffers from heavy traffic congestion, large amounts of truck movements from its port and industry, as well as pollution from high sea and canal based maritime traffic. Most of the railway access is via electrified lines.

This historic city is working to reduce the impact of road traffic, support public transport, return urban streets to pedestrian, cycling and sustainable travel and divert heavy traffic flows away from the inner city. As part of these efforts to improve local air quality, the Low Emission Zone was implemented.

Antwerp’s Low Emission Zone covers its inner city. In effect, the cleanest EURO engines can enter the zone freely. Vehicles with lower EURO ratings may be able to buy an ongoing permit to enter or more restrictive day passes which are limited to a set number of entries into the zone per year.

The zone is monitored by dedicated traffic cameras that scan vehicle licence plates at the zonal borders. Lists of crossing vehicles are assembled and processed over time to identify vehicles that need to have pre/ post paid for entry or eventually be fined.

The regulations became more stringent at the start of 2020 and will again tighten in 2025 and 2027. While minimizing the number of vehicles that face an outright ban on access to the inner city, Antwerp is progressively making access more restrictive and expensive. However, this is also linked to substantial increases in sustainable transport services and a major new highway bypass that will focus on the needs for road traffic access to the port.

Madrid, the capital of Spain and one the largest urban areas in Europe, sits high on a dry central plain. The urban core is densely developed and contains very historic areas, as well as major road thoroughfares. The city has a comprehensive public transport network, which has been significantly expanded in recent years. Nevertheless, Madrid has for many years had problems with poor air quality, as well as traffic congestion.

“Madrid Central” was launched in late 2018 as means of reducing air pollution in the city center, significantly lowering traffic volumes and thus, enabling better bus services, as well as walking and cycling. Initially, only zero-emission vehicles were allowed in this 4.7-square-kilometer (1.8-square-mile) zone. Special rules were put in place to allow access to hotels inside the zone by official guests, residents and people with reduced mobility.

The results were significant and immediate with substantial reductions in the key metrics and improved street conditions for sustainable transport modes. However, the scheme generated political controversy and a change in the political party running the city in late 2019 led to a change in approach. Initially, the new conservative mayor cancelled the Madrid Central scheme. This led to on street protests, a demonstrable increase in local pollution and congestion, legal action and after a few days, a reinstatement of the scheme.

As of January 2020, a revised scheme has been implemented that is more gradual in its approach and more like the model in Antwerp. The revised scheme bans the oldest and most polluting vehicles based on using an existing national vehicle sticker program. These restrictions will become more stringent over the coming years. Other exemptions exist to allow vehicles to enter the zone and it should be noted that the scheme is based on banning or restricting polluting vehicles rather than raising revenue.

Finally, while not a city-based scheme, discussion of Low Emission Zones in Europe should also consider some of the activity occurring in the high mountain passes across the Alps. Trade in Europe has always been impacted by the issues of moving goods north to south across the Alps and using the large rivers flowing  north from these mountains to the North Sea. A significant amount of goods move between the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and northern Italy. This has created substantial truck movements across a limited number of scenic mountain passes in Switzerland and Austria.  

An aspect of the impact of these truck movements has been increased political pressure to reduce use of trucks in the mountain passes in order to protect ecologically sensitive and otherwise  clean environments and thus switch as much of the goods traffic as possible to rail, while still enabling trade. Almost two million trucks cross the Brenner Pass in Austria each year.

Billions of euros are being invested in new high capacity and speed rail routes under the Alps. Some of these schemes are currently coming into operation such as the Gotthard and Ceneri base tunnels in Switzerland and the new low-level replacement tunnels via the Brenner and Semmering routes in Austria.

In effect, the high mountain passes in these countries are becoming Low Emission Zones for goods movements with strict regulations on the use and movement of tractor trailers and existing schemes in place in the alpine countries that charge freight vehicles per mile traveled on all roads or on highways. These tolls are part of the process to shift necessary transit traffic to the existing and new railways and protect the environment.

The number and range of Low Emission Zones is becoming quite complex for users in Europe,  particularly for commercial drivers as the nature, rules, permits and payment methods can change from one city to the next, as well as between countries. Inevitably, there will be need for some consolidation and standardization of these processes to enable efficiency of movement and trade across the continent.

Some cities are taking an approach of banning certain categories of vehicles while others are also using this as a means of raising revenue to support sustainable transport investment. Some cities are targeting their central cores and others the entire urban area or again sometime both with differing schemes.

The rules and procedures in each city, as well as specifically which vehicles and when they can enter the zones can vary subtly or significantly.

As a driver or visitor, the rules can be complicated to follow and misinterpreting the rules can lead to substantial fines. These schemes are laudable in dealing with concerns about air quality and congestion and improving the environment, but the number of exemptions, as well as the general and ongoing increase in the number of least polluting vehicles is challenging their long-term effectiveness.

Europe is reaching the point where the multiplicity of zero-emission schemes and their differences may make this approach unworkable. The EURO standard approach to vehicle emissions has helped to create one language in the pollution impact of all European vehicles. The number of schemes, however, may lead to more co-ordination across national schemes and eventually an EU wide approach. This is also to enable a consistency and efficiency in market access and trade.


Giles K Bailey is a Director at Stratageeb Limited, a London based consultancy assisting businesses think about their strategic vision and innovation. Previously, he had spent 9 years as Head of Strategy at Transport for London. He has worked in the UK and Canada over the last 25 years in mobility, innovation, marketing, digital, transport planning and consulting.

About the Author

Giles Bailey | Director, Stratageeb Limited

Giles Bailey is a director at Stratageeb Limited, a London-based consultancy assisting businesses in how they think about their strategic vision and innovation. Previously, he had spent nine years as head of strategy at Transport for London. He has worked in the UK and Canada over the last 25 years in mobility, innovation, marketing, digital, transport planning and consulting.