Low Emission Zones (in French, Zones à Faible Émissions or ZFE,) are gaining momentum in France with eight currently in place, due to rise to 12 shortly. By 2026, the most polluting vehicles will be banned from the city centres of the country’s main metropolitan areas. This mechanism which, at least in its philosophy, is both incentivising and coercive, is on the verge of revolutionising personal and professional mobility in France’s main city regions.
The origin of LEZs
So, what is this object of mystery (at least to some people)? A Low Emission Zone (sometimes referred to as a clean air zone) is a legal provision to prohibit certain types of vehicles from entering a given area. The tool has existed since the 1990s in Scandinavia (principally Sweden) and Italy, and grew in importance during the 2000s.
This mechanism is once again gaining popularity among public authorities, which are legally obliged to comply with European emission standards, particularly in France and Spain.
These exclusion zones always aim to reduce locally emitted pollution and can apply mainly to diesel vehicles (in Tokyo for example), of which France has a larger than average number. They can be combined with an urban or non-urban toll charge, as is the case in Milan and London for example. The British capital’s congestion charge generates €250 million of revenue per year, while the Greater Paris LEZ will cover a population of 5.6 million, evidence of the efficiency of such measures.
LEZs are, in practice, very widespread in Europe, particularly in Italy where there are around a hundred of them, and in Northern Europe (Germany, the Netherlands, etc.). These exclusion zones have become established without major difficulties, and some have existed for more than 20 years, providing important feedback for projects currently in the pipeline.
France is therefore seriously lagging behind its neighbours and has a much lower ambition, with the ultimate goal of 100 fewer LEZs than in Spain (around 40 compared with 138 for its Pyrenean neighbour) despite having a population more than 20 million greater. France will thus stand in fourth position among the European countries with the most polluting vehicle exclusion zones, behind Germany, which will have twice as many. The current policy, resulting from the Mobility Orientation (LOM, 2019) and Climate (2021) Acts, thus aims to close the gap in order to meet European pollutant emission standards. One recalls that France was sanctioned for failing to address the high nitrogen dioxide levels in its main cities, having been ordered to comply by the Court of Justice of the European Union for ten years.
To accelerate the decline in carbon emissions, the LOM furthermore stipulates the goal of introducing LEZs in the main cities which do not meet European thresholds, and the 2021 Climate Action Act imposes the extension of the mechanism to all metropolitan areas with more than 150,000 inhabitants. Far from simply banning certain categories of vehicles from driving, LEZs create a focus on many issues:
- Develop the use of public transport, in particular feeder services
- Act directly on emission sources by removing the highest emitters from the roads
- Avoid the risk of increasing traffic on the outskirts of LEZs
- Be aware of the risk of social exclusion and avoid it
- Consider the need for an across-the-board approach from support to deployment
- Support cities in a transition to a calmer model with mobility redesigned across the catchment area.