Is London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone undermining our freedom?

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Start the electric car revolution. Imagine the new soundscape of the city in 2030: the hum of the quieter vehicle, the cooing of the pigeons, possibly even church bells far away – or was it the clatter of the scaffolding? Imagine the rise in property prices on all these peaceful streets.

As idyllic as this may seem, I can’t imagine the trip going smoothly. Politically and socially, it can be more infernal than blocking two lanes on a busy motorway.

There are no environmental zones in the US – although there is one voluntary square mile in Santa Monica. But they are the norm in Europe, from Stockholm to Rome. Chile’s capital, Santiago, has introduced one, as has Beijing.

With its strict Ultra Low Emission Zone, London is one step ahead. It will be expanded in October. The Ulez, which currently covers an 8 square mile district in central London, will also cover the inner suburbs next month, a total of 146 square miles, or an 18-fold expansion.

There is nothing explicit about this being a foray into electrics. It only takes older cars off the road – roughly speaking, gasoline cars before 2005 and diesels before 2015 based on engine class. The aim is to reduce harmful NO2 and particle emissions. The side effect is the reduction of CO2 emissions through more efficient engines and a further boost for the switch to electric.

But if you’re a north Londoner who made a perfectly sensible decision to buy a shiny new diesel Volkswagen Golf in 2014, you’re now being told that your lane is no longer clear. It costs € 12.50 per day. You have the option to switch to the middle lane by switching to a gasoline vehicle. But it will only be so long before charging is introduced there too. (And sorry, not sorry, that I asked you to unload your diesel car at the same time as tens of thousands of other Londoners.)

You are also welcome to switch directly to the remote lane and drive electrically. Granted, it is quite the price jump to buy a suitable car, but the choice is yours.

It’s pretty tight. Your other option is to give up everything and take the bus.

Those with a green or environmentally conscious conviction – whose views I have a lot of sympathy for – would say that driving in a city with a well-developed public transport network and delivery services is a pleasure anyway.

But that doesn’t take needs into account: not every car is about status or laziness. For example, if you have to get kids to school and the office on time, sometimes a car is the only way to go on such a multi-stop tour and keep your job. And if you can’t afford to pay someone to take your kids to school, you might not be able to afford much more than an old bang, either.

With 43 percent of London motorists parked their cars on the street, finding a charging point for an electric car is a lottery of the circumstances © Ceri Breeze / Alamy

As we continue to block alleys, another problem arises: housing inequality. Your mode of transport determines how you live. How you live also determines your means of transport.

The UK government has just announced that it will propose a bill next year that will require all newly built homes to have electric car charging points. Well, tyrant for the buyer. (Let’s not mention the pollution costs of the construction, nor the fact that the government promised the same legislation in 2019.)

But a pretty large chunk of London motorists forget that. If your home has a driveway or garage, charging an electric vehicle is not a problem. Anyone who parks their car on the side of the road, as 43 percent of Londoners do according to TfL data, is entered into a lottery of circumstances.

Those who live in a mansion block or in high-rise buildings are trying to figure out how to run a cable from the fifth floor. You might be lucky with a charging station nearby – at a higher cost than household electricity. Or maybe not. In the end, are you a second-class citizen punished for having to use the garage pumps while the city’s public charging infrastructure catches up with its ambition?

There are all sorts of other points of friction along the way, not least the symbolic value of a car. Her first was a rite of passage to personal freedom. Is that being eroded?

As a non-car owner, even a fanatical pedestrian in London, I would appreciate the Ulez slowly ramping up until we actually hear the pigeons coo.

Road charges are not new. In the days before the car, there were barriers and toll roads across the country. Back then you were charged horsepower; A horse and cart were cheaper than a carriage pulled by nine that trampled down the street, releasing emissions from its tailpipes.

The last century was about buying freedom – owning your own house, owning your own car. Forcing people to change course will be painful. So while I wait to hear the pigeons coo, I like to hear the complaints from a decade about it. Taking away people’s freedoms is not something to be done callously.

On the other hand, think about house prices.

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