Sustainable mobility in Europe: low-emission zones and how they’re reshaping European cities | NTT DATA

Wed, 16 March 2022

Sustainable mobility in Europe: low-emission zones and how they’re reshaping European cities

Did you know that air pollution is responsible for 412,000 premature deaths in Europe each year? That is more than double than those resulting from car accidents.

These staggering numbers, together with the multiple reports on the deadly effects of global warming, have determined the European Union to establish rules and restrictions that support a more sustainable living. These new rules are aimed to lower polluting gasses such as nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide or volatile organic compounds, among others, which largely come from the road transportation part from road traffic. One of the most effective measures implemented by public administrations has been imposing strict regulations regarding pollutant vehicle mobility in the city centers to improve air pollution.

Furthermore, in an effort to reduce greenhouse emissions, the EU has launched The European Green Deal program which sets out to eliminate net emissions of greenhouse gasses by 2050 by allocating funds to different initiatives, among which are the low-emission zones (LEZs).

Spain, for instance, was one of the first countries to take drastic measures by approving the Climate Change and Energy Transition Law last year that requires all cities with over 50,000 to implement a low-emission zone before 2023. The NextGenerationEU Plan, an instrument designed to boost the recovery of European countries following the outburst of COVID-19, also allocates grants towards the implementation of mobility projects and low-emission zones which have proven to have a rapid positive impact on the quality of air in an area.

So, what are low-emission zones and why are they important?

Low-emission zones: what are they and what benefits do they bring?

A low-emission zone is an area where access to vehicles is restricted or limited with the aim of improving air quality. These areas favor vehicles such as bicycles, micromobility vehicles, certain alternative fuel vehicles, hybrid electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, and zero-emission vehicles such as all-electric vehicles.

LEZs have been shown to protect public health by improving air quality, encourage the use of shared transport and other active travel options, as well as accelerate the adoption of lower emission vehicles such as electric vehicles. In central London, the level of nitrogen dioxide pollution (half of which comes from diesel engines) dropped by 44% since the ultra-low emission zones came into effect in 2019. Similarly, in Brussels, the reduction in diesel cars on the city’s roads between 2018 and October 2020 has been linked to a 9% drop in nitrogen dioxide pollution, and a 17% drop in PM2.5 pollution.

However positive the results, developing LEZs is a challenging task for any public administration. For instance, being able to deliver everything at the rapid speed with which grants are being allocated and results need to be delivered. The Spanish Government alone received from the European Union 1000 million euros in 2021 to help develop initiatives such as the low-emission zones and they’re being allocated 500 million more in 2022. Once these funds reach municipalities, they will need to start organizing tenders for these complex projects which in itself takes months.

The positive impact of implementing LEZs in cities is undeniable but how are local administrations managing the complex task of developing low-emission zones in such a short period of time?

What are the main challenges and solutions implemented by local Spanish authorities to create low-emission zones?

As slowing down global warming with sustainability initiatives has become a priority over the past years, many international organizations are expecting local governments to be quick in developing these initiatives. In Spain, for instance, the Climate Change and Energy Transition Law has already been approved a year ago and most local municipalities have already set in motion a plan to create the low-emission zones which are such an important part of the EU level programs. According to 2020 data from the National Statistics Office, the total number of cities that fall into the restriction of this law is 149.

The first challenge of these 149 local municipalities is deciding where the low-emission zone will be developed at a city level. This requires establishing a set of criteria for LEZs. In an effort to help local governments with this challenge, NTT Data EMEAL has joined the network of cities for low emission mobility, as a member of the working committee of the technical organization who is in charge of defining these criteria.

Once that is defined, local authorities need to design the entire operation which includes, among other things, countless ordinances, sanctioning procedures, directions on how the low-emission zone will be managed, and a communication plan for the citizens.

The final step is choosing the technological solution that will support and manage the low-emission zone. There are many approaches to this and, as an expert in both technological solutions and public administration, NTT Data’s view is putting the citizen at the center and developing the right tools to facilitate access to the LEZ with user-friendly solutions.

Low-emission zones in other European cities

Each city is following its own standards. Milan, for example, has four variations of its low emission zone, and only in winter vehicles with a lower Euro standard are banned in the regional LEZ (Milano Province). Even so, the city has managed to reduce NO2 levels by 10% and incoming traffic of just over 30%. Barcelona had a similar approach and extended the low-emission zone to the whole metropolitan area and implemented lax restrictions such as timeframes when certain vehicles aren’t allowed. A different approach was taken in Madrid where the low-emission zone was initially only 5 km². However, now plans show that the intention is to expand it to the entire M-30 area by 2023 and ultimately, to the whole city by 2024. Berlin, on the other hand, applied it almost to the entire city, achieving a 20% reduction in NO2 emissions. London is one of the cities that is most aware of the changes brought by LEZ, as its NO2 levels fell by a third in the area and the city almost tripled the amount of protected lanes for cycling.

As far as measures to improve the air quality in cities go, developing a low-emission zone is a necessity for any European city. With its strict sustainable mobility law that requires every city of over 50.000 habitants to implement a low-emission zone before 2023, Spain is at the forefront of European countries in understanding the positive impact of LEZs. The government's goal to incorporate LEZs in their strategy to convert their main cities into healthier, more sustainable municipalities is, however, a challenging task for most local municipalities. The process of establishing where these areas should be, defining the rules and regulations, and developing the technological solution is a complex project which requires the support of trusted partners such as NTT Data with proven knowledge in both technology and managing major projects for the public sector.