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January 17, 2023

What is an ultra-low emission zone (or a ULEZ to many)?

ULEZ now adorns street signs not just in the UK capital but in cities around the nation.

By Silvia Pellegrino

In the UK, areas with limitations on car emissions that are designed to promote cleaner air are referred to as a ULEZ or Ultra Low Emission Zones. When driving in these areas, a vehicle could be subjected to a fee or tax depending on its emissions levels.

A road sign on the A406 tells drivers they are entering a ULEZ. (Photo by Dave Jacobs/Shutterstock)

Along with the ULEZ charge, there is also the LEZ tax, or Low Emission Zone tax, which was established to encourage drivers to use cleaner vehicles over heavy diesel cars and has been introduced in cities like London. This is not to be confused with the Congestion Charge, which covers central London and has some exclusion periods.

Numerous cities in the UK have enacted a ULEZ.

How does London’s ULEZ work?

The London ULEZ initiative aims to clean the air in the capital. It is operative 24 hours a day, seven days a week, excluding Christmas Day.

In London, any vehicle that weighs more than 3.5 tonnes – except lorries and specialist heavy vehicles, buses, and coaches, which are exempt – is required to pay a £12.50 daily charge in order to travel inside the designated zones, according to the zone’s emission criteria.

Each vehicle has to meet certain conditions, such as the Euro 4 emission requirements (if the car is registered from 1 January 2006) for gasoline automobiles and Euro 6 emission standards (if the car is registered from 1 September 2015) for diesel vehicles. Vans must follow the same rules as cars, however, motorcycles and mopeds must follow Euro 3 emission standards (if the vehicle is registered from 1 January 2001).

The ULEZ was originally put into effect in April 2019 to discourage owners of highly polluting vehicles from using the roads in central London. Its objective was to reduce pollution and help purify the city’s dirty air and it, initially, appears to be working. A 2020 study found that the daily fee contributed to a 44% reduction in roadside nitrogen dioxide levels.

Where in London is the ULEZ?

Everywhere inside the North (A406) and South Circular (A205) roads is marked as a ULEZ. If a vehicle, which does not meet the ULEZ emission requirements, only very briefly enters the zone, the fee will still be charged. People who reside in the designated areas are still required to pay.

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In November 2022, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan declared that the Ultra Low Emission Zone would be extended throughout the summer of 2023, starting on 29 August. No longer limited to the area between London’s North and South Circular roads, the expansion will mean drivers of vehicles that do not meet the basic emission standards will be charged the ordinary daily fee for entering the Greater London Authority limits. This expansion will make the ULEZ zone 18 times bigger and cover all of London’s boroughs.

How do you pay for the ULEZ?

If a vehicle enters the ULEZ, payment is due by midnight on the third day after the trip.

The individual risks obtaining a penalty charge notice (PCN) if the charge is not paid.

The main ways to pay the ULEZ fee are online; using the TfL Pay to Drive in London app; calling the TfL service, or by setting up Auto Pay, which will charge you each month for any Congestion Charge and ULEZ payments that are overdue. 

Which cities have a ULEZ?

During 2021, the cities of Bath, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds and Portsmouth announced clean-air zones. In 2022, more cities introduced their own ULEZs:

  • Oxford – Oxford established Britain’s first zero-emission zone (ZEZ) and began a pilot zone in the summer of 2021. This means that all automobiles used in the area, unless they are electric, will have to pay a daily price based on their emissions. The cost can range up to £10 a day for vehicles that do not meet emission standards.
  • Manchester – the city implemented a Clean Air Plan, in which only the most polluting cars that exceed emission limits are charged to drive in the Zone. This includes all vehicles apart from private cars, motorbikes and mopeds. 
  • Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee – Scottish LEZs were introduced in May 2022, with Aberdeen and Edinburgh expected to start enforcement on 1 June 2024, Glasgow on 1 June 2023 and Dundee on 30 May 2024.
  • Bristol – the city established a Clean Air Zone in the summer of 2022. The charges are applied to vehicles such as private petrol and diesel cars, and taxis. There are also some exemptions, such as fully electric vehicles.
  • Bradford – launched in the summer of 2022, Bradford’s Clean Air Zone only applies to HGVs, LGVs, buses, coaches and private hire vehicles.
  • Newcastle – starting in July 2022, Newcastle introduced a Clean Air Zone too, although it doesn’t affect car drivers as of yet, only taxis, vans, buses, coaches and HGVs. 
  • Sheffield – starting to charge from 27 February 2023, Sheffield’s clean air zone will only apply to the most polluting heavy goods vehicles, light goods vehicles, vans, buses, coaches and taxis. Private cars and motorbikes will not be affected.

[Read more: London air pollution: Expanding the ULEZ is good but it won’t work by itself]

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