With the government’s new aim to stop the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2040, towns and cities around the country are looking at ways to reduce traffic and pollution. Oxford claims to be leading the way with its aim of being the world’s first zero-emissions zone. However, is the promise really all it seems?

Oxford - Zero-Emissions Zone

(Credit – Lewis Clarke)

The scheme

Oxford’s proposal aims to slash air pollution, which has risen to above legal limits in some areas due to the amount of harmful nitrogen dioxide in the air. The plans are currently undergoing consultation. They involve prohibiting any non-zero emission taxis from the centre of the city, followed by light commercial vehicles and then buses by 2020.

Critics of Oxford’s rather grandiose plan to host the world’s first zero emissions zone might well latch onto the fact that banning traffic from a city centre is not really a viable way to reduce emissions – not unless our cities are prepared to roll out fleets of electric taxis, buses and delivery lorries in the very near future. Additionally, the map of the proposed scheme’s boundaries (PDF) demonstrates the rather small scale of the initial zero emissions zone, which covers just a handful of streets.

Nevertheless, Oxford is going ahead with the consultation for its ‘world first’ plan. The city aims to have a zero-emissions zone that will cover all non-electric vehicles, including HGVs. This zone would expand to cover the whole of the city centre by 2035, according to plans created jointly by the city and county councils. This would result in a 75% reduction in the levels of nitrogen dioxide by the time the scheme completes in 2035, as most of these pollutants come from vehicle exhausts.

Changing position

The plan comes after Oxford was one of 11 cities to breach the safe limit for toxic particles known as PM10s in a study by the World Health Organization last year. It also breached the limits for PM2.5 particles.

The city council has secured some £500,000 worth of government funding in order to install electric charging points for new taxis, along with a further £800,000 to create 100 electric vehicle charging points for residents. However, officials admit more will be needed to deliver the planned zero-emissions zone.

Problems around the country

Many towns and cities around the UK are facing a similar problem, but the Oxford model doesn’t work for everyone. Part of the reason for this is that the university city already has a high percentage of pedestrianised areas where no vehicles travel. This means there is less traffic in the centre of Oxford than in many other cities of a similar size.

Other cities have already tried. London operated a scheme until 2015 that aimed to create a low emissions zone. Founded in 2008, the scheme saw vehicles that failed to meet a low-emissions standard having to pay to enter the city. The aim was to dramatically reduce the polluting gases and particles that Londoners were being exposed to daily.

Unfortunately, the scheme had little impact. The predicted 10% drop in oxides that was expected by 2012 didn’t happen and, three years later, the air quality had not improved at all.

Understanding the problems

According to experts, one of the problems was that the scheme came alongside the growing realisation that diesel vehicles were much more polluting than everyone thought. The scheme has now been replaced with the Ultra Low Emission Zone, along with a plan to convert all double-decker buses in central London to hybrids and all single decker buses to zero emissions by 2020.

Yet this doesn’t deal with the problem of taxis, delivery vehicles and HGVs, which are still polluting the air space. The Oxford model of simply banning these vehicles certainly wouldn’t be feasible in London. It seems that further work is needed before we have a model that can work in all of the UK’s cities and help improve the air quality for everyone.

What else can we do to reduce air pollution in our cities? How long will it be before we have a plan in place that’s both realistic and effective? Leave a comment to share your views. 

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