Clean air zones: what you need to know

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Published on 28 September 2020 by Mike Waters

Clean air zones are probably coming to somewhere near you soon if they aren’t there already, so what are they and what do you need to know? Mike Waters explores...

The first thing to know about clean air zones (CAZs) is that the name pretty much says it all. In summary, they’re a defined area in which the authorities want to reduce or prevent airborne pollution by vehicles. There are plenty of variations – London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone, Glasgow’s Low Emission Zone, Oxford’s Zero Emission Zone and so on – but the gist is the same. If you want to go in and your bike doesn’t meet the zone’s standards, you pay a fee up front or a fine when they catch you.

The second thing is that they are a good idea. A study conducted in 2016 by the Royal College of Physicians and Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (link) found that air pollution is killing approximately 40,000 people a year in the United Kingdom alone and that long-term exposure increases rates of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other serious conditions. The panel of experts who conducted the study estimated that, in addition to the human cost in lives and health, this also costs the UK’s economy £20 billion a year.

That leads onto the third thing, which is that they’re being brought in on a fairly urgent basis – by local government standards, anyway. In 2015, the Supreme Court ordered the government to take action after the legal limit for nitrogen dioxide levels in cities was breached. That led to the first wave of CAZs beyond London in Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton where the air quality was found to be the worst in the country, and more are now either already in place, on their way or being studied for feasibility. 

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In principle, Clean Air Zones are serving a good end. No one wants to wreck someone’s health and force them into an early grave. However, they are trying to solve the problem of air pollution using the blunt instrument of money rather than the scalpel of intelligence. As a result, they set off the troublesome law of unintended consequences.

As things stand, a good percentage of motorcycles already meet CAZ emissions standards. Manufacturers have been reducing emissions for years thanks to existing regulations and local authorities often refer to the Euro 3 level that came into force in 2007. As a result, it’s usually pre-2007 machines that fall foul of the limits, although more recent bikes that have seen a lot of wear and tear can drop below them too – but that’s a whole other kettle of fish. The average motorcycle is on the road for 12 to 15 years, so most pre-2007 bikes are probably going to leave the road pretty soon anyway if they haven’t already.

In keeping these older bikes away from city centres, CAZs are indeed preventing the most polluting machines from being near the greatest concentrations of people. But the next links along in that chain are awkward ones. All else being equal, people don’t tend to choose to ride older, less efficient bikes – with the honourable exception of the classic bike community, but a lot of CAZs have a deliberate exemption for them. People who ride knackered old bikes ride them not because that’s their ideal choice, but because that’s probably all they can realistically afford to ride.

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As regular readers may recall, the BMF has already been involved in the debate around the London ULEZ where the effects of this very issue can be seen today. The Federation has been contacted by a number of low-paid workers, including one in the ambulance service, who were concerned that they simply wouldn’t be able to ride to work and meet the fees involved in getting there. Unfortunately, with more CAZs on the way, this is only going to become a more frequent problem.

To be British about this and look at it through the lens of social class, what Clean Air Zones really do is discourage people who can’t afford a newer bike or a daily fee from travelling in city centres. They also have the consequence of hammering the working class – the London ULEZ’s £15 a day fee really bites into a day’s take-home pay when you’re earning minimum wage at £8.72 an hour, much less an apprentice’s £4.15 rate, and that’s before you add parking on top of that as well.

Well-meant or not, effectively reserving roads in the hearts of our major cities for wealthier people who can afford newer vehicles or who can simply pay up means the whole thing causes more problems than it solves. Going after a shrinking number of older bikes and the people who ride them with fees or fines is wildly disproportionate given their numbers and it hurts those who can least bear it the most. Right now, CAZs are in a contradictory situation of helping someone’s internal organs but hindering the rest of them. 

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To give credit where credit is due, some authorities are attempting to do something about this.

Last October, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan announced the launch of a scrappage scheme to help the disabled and people on low incomes with grants towards the purchase of a ULEZ-compliant vehicle when they scrap a non-compliant one. Thanks to lobbying by the Motorcycle Industry Association, £1,000 grants for bikes were added to the scheme’s provisions too – as the BMF covered at the time.

But this is just one scheme in one city. If the government really does want to get serious about reducing air pollution, why not roll it out nationwide? The 2009 vehicle scrappage scheme saw 300,000 older cars removed from the roads and replaced by newer, less polluting ones with the help of £1,000 grants, so doing the same thing again for bikes too is entirely feasible. All those grants will add up, yes, but the final figure won’t be anywhere close to the £20 billion a year that air pollution costs the economy.

What about other ways to use the strengths of motorcycles? For example, time spent stuck in traffic is time spent polluting while going nowhere. Allowing bikes to use bus lanes and so stay moving more would sidestep this problem and help cut congestion. Ditto encouraging more people to use bikes instead of cars, which can be helped with the provision of proper bike parking, effective road maintenance and perhaps even following the example of Bath and Birmingham and making bikes exempt from Clean Air Zone fees entirely.

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The big mistake with including motorcycles in broadly drawn regulations about air pollution is that bikes are much more of a solution than a problem. Lumping bikes in with lorries and aiming fees at everybody without stopping to think through the full ramifications is like trying to lose weight by cutting your leg off – yes, a reduction has been achieved, but you’ve just lost a lot of options with the kind of activity that could have really helped in the longer term.

Clean Air Zones are here to stay and that’s a good thing, but they need to help people and fines are poor tools to achieve that. Problems as big as air pollution need more intelligent solutions than this and programmes of properly thought-out measures that work with each other instead of against each other. And that really would be a breath of fresh air, wouldn’t it?

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2020 edition of BMF Motorcycle Rider. 

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