• 20 March 2024
  • Decarbonization

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Low-emission zones: Managing air quality in cities

This blog article is based on the latest TUMI infographic below. It explains different types of low-emission zones (LEZ) and provides examples of how these measures are implemented in cities around the world. To find more TUMI infographics, head to our multimedia library.


Low-Emission Zones, Explained. This infographic presents the various types of LEZ on a scale from less restrictive to more restrictive, additionally differentiativ between size, scope, and pricing. This version also includes a definition and examples.

In the face of challenges like rising motorization and congestion, worsening air quality, and the impacts of climate change, cities need bold and comprehensive solutions that encourage a transition to electric vehicles and the use of public transportation, cycling, and walking. Low-emission zones are vehicle access regulation schemes that restrict or ban the access of polluting vehicles into a zone with the aim of improving air quality. Sometimes, they work together with congestion charges to also tackle traffic congestion. But in most cases, they stand alone and are non-priced.

Since 2019, the number of low-emission zones in Europe has been growing by 40%. Over 320 zones exist on the continent, but some are more restrictive than others. Their design can vary across dimensions such as area coverage, scope (e.g. vehicle emission categories), or pricing. And non-European examples such as low-emission zones in Kevadia, India or in Seoul, South Korea show that low-emission zones (LEZ) work elsewhere, too. In January 2024, Guadalajara in Mexico became the latest city to announce the introduction of a LEZ. Despite their potential, they are often difficult to introduce, and cities will likely encounter opposition. Let’s have a look at low-emission zones in place across the world to see how to reap benefits for cities and what contributes to their successful implementation.

Barcelona: City-wide zone with ring road exception

From January 1, 2020, Barcelona has implemented a low-emission zone that covers the entire metropolitan area. Through number plate recognition, the authorities keep an eye on whether vehicles comply or not. The area covers a total of 95 km² within the city’s ring roads. Polluting vehicles are allowed on the ring roads but cannot use the exits leading into the low-emission zone. Residents are encouraged to apply for an environmental label. While not mandatory, this helps local police forces to check compliance. Over 100 license plate-reading cameras throughout the city automatically check license plates against labels and notify local authorities of non-compliant vehicles, which are subject to a penalty of 200 Euro or up to 260 Euro in episodes of air pollution. Foreign-registered cars can obtain a permit online by registering their license plate.

Berlin: Growing zone and comprehensive traffic measures 

Berlin has succeeded in reducing PM10 emissions1 and in increasing the percentage of walking and cycling over the last years. This is due to comprehensive set of traffic measures that range from improving public transport and encouraging multimodal, cycling, and walking trips and also introducing an increasingly strict low-emission zone. For example, the German capital implemented a network of cycle lanes, redesigned sidewalks, and intersections to give more space to people.

The city introduced its first low-emission zone in 2002, which has become stricter over the years. Today, in order to drive within Berlin’s low-emission zone, a green sticker is required which is valid in every German low-emission zone. For officials, the green sticker facilitates control. Drivers that enter the low-emission zone without it are liable to pay 80 Euro plus fees.

Brussels: City-wide zone and changes in car culture 

Brussels has a  low-emission zone that prohibits highly polluting vehicles from entering the capital region. The entire Brussels region is covered by this zone, measuring 161 km² in total. To enter the zone, cars that meet the low-emission requirements must be registered online, including foreign cars. Alternatively, drivers of polluting cars can buy a day pass for polluting vehicles at 35 Euro for individual cars. The fine for entering the zone with an unregistered or non-compliant car stands at 150 Euro a day. Brussels encourages all drivers to shift to a cleaner vehicle or, even better, use an alternative mode of transport.

By using language such as “There are 1001 ways to travel in Brussels except in a car that is too polluting” or “And if you really want to drive a car… it is possible to buy a day pass for non-compliant vehicles”, the city is trying to change the culture around car use by discouraging private vehicles. In its first year of operation, the LEZ reduced PM2.52 concentrations by 38% and NOx by 9%. Multiple incentive policies and mobility packages such as free public transit and carshare for those scrapping an older vehicle helped to raise public acceptance of the LEZ. Free “mobility visits” allow people to test out bikeshares and other alternatives to driving.

A Row of Rental Bicycles on the Street in Brussels, Belgium by Emmanuel Codden, pexels

Shenzhen: Small zones affecting heavy-duty freight vehicles 

In Shenzhen, the city government has implemented zero-emission freight zones in several urban areas. Since 2018, this has led to the adoption of over 70,000 battery-electric freight vehicles within just one year. 20,000 freight vehicle charging stations were also installed, further encouraging electric freight vehicle uptake. The smaller zones throughout the city will grow. In implementing these low-emission zones with a particular scope, Shenzhen has faced many obstacles, mostly due to the high cost of electric freight vehicles and the fragmentation of the logistics market. The city has relied on financial incentives and vehicle leasing schemes rather than fines. This has helped small logistics service providers to overcome cost barriers. For companies that face difficulties with vehicle replacement, there are exemption schemes.

HK CityBus B3 view, Shenzhen Bay by Owocy Luwenm, Wikimedia Commons

Milan: Different zones and electric buses 

Milan offers an example of a low-emission zone with a big scope. In 2019, “Area B” came into force, banning the most-polluting vehicles from an area covering 75% of the city. Until 2030, the standard that vehicles must comply with will progressively increase with the aim of banning all diesel vehicles. Vehicles that don’t apply must pay a fee depending on their emission class. The fine for entering the Area is 80 Euro. “Area C” further restricts traffic and avoids congestion in the city centre by requiring a daily fee of 7.50 Euro. The city is also investing in alternatives: It is increasing bus services and aims at making all buses electric by 2030. There is also a fund to help small- and medium-sized enterprises purchase cleaner vehicles.   Milan is suffering some of the worst air quality in Europe, but Area B is expected to halve PM10 and NOx3 pollution by 2026. The city has also established a fund to help small- und medium-sized enterprises purchase cleaner vehicles.

Via Lazzaretto, Milan, Lombardy by David McKelvey, flickr

Kevadia: Restricting all vehicles in favour of electric-only 

Kevadia, a town in the western state of Gujarat, aspires to be “India’s first electric vehicle city”. To that end, the city is establishing vehicle-access restricted areas, starting with an electric-vehicle-only zone around the world’s tallest statue, the Statue of Unity, which is located near Kevadia. The authorities are planning a phased implementation of initiatives to support the new ambition, including shared e-bikes, electric buses for tourists, and financial assistance for employees wanting to purchase an electric vehicle. Residents of Kevadia who want to purchase an electric three-wheeler for ride-hailing are also eligible for this purchase subsidy wit preference given to women.

Kevadia 50 vehicles all women drivers ops

Seoul: City-wide zone and limits in new vehicle registration 

Seoul has a low-emission zone that covers the entire metropolitan area, including the neighbouring city Incheon and most of Gyeonggi Province. Like in many other cities, there are fines for not complying with the emission standards for vehicle, which in Seoul amount to  212 USD (195 Euro) a day. . Drivers have to register their cars online to facilitate control of the zone. So far, the city’s “Green Transport Zone” has seen a 16% drop in PM 2.5 concentrations, even though it is much smaller than Brussels’ LEZ, for example. To achieve its goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, Seoul is considering limiting new vehicle registrations to only electric and hydrogen vehicles from 2035.

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Jeongdong-gil (정동길), One of the most popular pedestrian alleys in Seoul by the lovers by Joongwon Lee, Wikimedia Commons

London: Priced city-wide zone and congestion charge 

London, like Antwerp, offers an example of a priced low-emission zone. Since summer 2023, the entire British capital is covered by an ultra-low emission zone with very strict standards. Any moving vehicles not meeting the standards are subject to a daily charge. Already, the ULEZ has seen drastic reductions in NO2 concentrations. However, introducing a LEZ can be politically challenging, as was the case in London, where protesters blocked some of the smart cameras that scan license plates to check for ULEZ compliance. Labelling air pollution a public health emergency was helpful to change opinions. At the same time, revenue generation can be significant. In 2021, the ULEZ was Transport for London’s fourth largest revenue stream. Importantly, the British capital is one of the few cities that, like Singapore and Stockholm, combine the low-emission zone with a congestion charge. These two measures work together, exempting clean vehicles from the congestion charge or at least reducing the charge.

Recharging station for electric cars in London’s Berkeley Square by Lars Plougmann, flickr

Conclusion and recommendations 

While it is not easy to measure the impact of low-emission zones on their own, they are one of several “carrot and stick” measures to tackle the challenge of individual car use in cities, which leads to pollution and congestion. As a restrictive “stick” measure, low-emission zones – especially when combined with congestion charge zones – can lead to a reduction in the use of polluting cars, supporting e-mobility and other forms of transportation. Comprehensive traffic management policies should also consider traffic calming measures, new bus lanes, increased bus frequency, an increase in parking restrictions and fees, and park-and-ride facilities. 

Download the infographic

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