Driving Dystopia: Europe’s Low Emission Zones Aren't Going Over Well

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

With New York City having decided to embrace European-style congestion charging as local residents express their displeasure, it might be wise to take time to look at other roadway initiatives that might soon migrate across the Atlantic to see how they’re fairing. Ultra Low Emission Zones (ULEZ) seem to be the next step, as they’re reliant on the same camera systems and vehicle tracking used for congestion taxes. However, they’re also following a similar trajectory as Britain's speed cameras in Europe. Disgruntled citizens have not only continued destroying the devices, they’re reportedly picking up the pace.

Originally framed as a way to improve air quality throughout London, ULEZ cameras have started to proliferate more suburban communities. All vehicles traversing these areas are subject to fines unless they adhere to strict emissions guidelines or have been given a clearance by the city. Basically, you need to be driving an electric vehicle or be prepared to spend £12.50 per day to travel through prohibited areas. There's also a £160-million scheme mimicking the United States' defunct Cash-4-Clunkers designed to pay people to destroy their old cars to buy new ULEZ compliant models (which admittedly sounds like it's just going to create more pollution).

These strictly enforced Ultra Low Emission Zones never resonated with the public. The very first cameras received complaints, as some local residents realized there was almost no way for them to leave their driveway without encountering one. Before long, cameras started being vandalized or destroyed overnight by individuals wearing masks. This was followed by a 66-percent disapproval rate in a referendum asking whether or not citizens wanted to see ULEZ expansion in 2023. Londoners very clearly did not. But the government moved on with the program anyway and created a situation that now literally requires the hiring of armed guards to protect enforcement cameras from damage.

There have also been severe errors that resulted in countless motorists being mistakenly charged fees due to system errors, clerical mistakes, or cameras being mounted the wrong way. These are concerns we’ve likewise seen voiced regarding the novel NYC congestion charging cameras. Many streets that weren't supposed to have them have seen them installed in recent days, with city officials assuring the public that they’re just there for data collection.

Residents in both cities are now decrying the schemes as predatory ways for the government to fleece the populace of money. The Guardian recently reported that Transport for London (TfL) had been accused by five EU countries of illegally obtaining names and addresses of non-UK citizens in order to issue the fines. The report cites a minimum of 320,000 allegedly erroneous penalties since 2021.

The reason the UK is not allowed to do this anymore is due to the country having left the EU during Brexit. The nation has been banned from automatic access to personal details of citizens residing outside its borders. This is is despite France and other European countries having nearly identical (and similarly unpopular) automated congestion charging schemes in place.

From The Guardian:

In France, more than 100 drivers have launched a lawsuit claiming their details were obtained fraudulently, while Dutch lorry drivers are taking legal action against TfL over £6.5m of fines they claim were issued unlawfully.
According to the Belgian MP Michael Freilich, who has investigated the issue on behalf of his constituents, TfL is treating European drivers as a “cash cow” by using data obtained illegitimately to issue unjustifiable fines.
Many of the penalties have been issued to drivers who visited London in ULEZ-compliant vehicles and were not aware they had to be registered with TfL’s collections agent Euro Parking at least 10 days before their visit.
Failure to register does not count as a contravention, according to ULEZ rules, but some drivers have nonetheless received penalties of up to five-figure sums. TfL said the fines were justified because it was unable to confirm whether foreign vehicles had contravened emissions standards if they were not registered.

Local Brits have similar complaints and most recent reporting often states that residents actually support ULEZ cameras being vandalized. Common tactics have involved using motorized tools to cut the cameras down. But there have likewise been numerous incidents where devices were burned, covered in holiday decorations, had their wires ripped out, or were covered in paint. We’ve even seen instances where individuals had glued sex toys to the face of the cameras as a callback to the speed-camera protests of the prior decade.

The vans used to install or service ULEZ cameras (and sometimes carry cameras and server systems of their own) have likewise been vandalized, encouraging the government to hire security at some locations 24 hours a day. Disgruntled Brits have also taken to blocking these vehicles from entering or leaving streets and insulting the hired guards. This has occasionally resulted in scuffles, including an instance where security person actually ran over someone protesting ULEZ cameras late last year.

South East London’s News Shopper reported on an incident from January where a vehicle crashed after someone had cut down ULEZ cameras and street lights located on Court Road in Orpington. While some of the residents interviewed did agree that traffic had been reduced, most said the program was an abomination that robbed people and should be done away with by any means necessary.

“The new 20mph speed limit is ridiculous, and it’s all about control from the government and again, drawback money from Covid,” Georgie Jnr Killick told the outlet in an interview. “I hope this all carries on so the government will listen to the people.”

London Mayor Sadiq Khan has taken the brunt of the public’s ire, even though the ULEZ concept predates his tenure. Truth be told, the program likely goes back to the UK speed camera push that fell onto the shoulders of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson when he became mayor in 2008. Despite still being used across the country, speed cameras originated as a London-based initiative that expanded across the United Kingdom and was likewise faulted as a scheme to harvest money from the public. Protests and vandalism have managed to reduce their number in recent years. But they’ve effectively been supplanted by ULEZ cameras and congestion charging.

According to The Telegraph, Khan is now working up a clandestine program that would leverage preexisting camera systems to charge motorists by the mile. The program reportedly operates under the guidance of Transport for London and already has $150 million invested with 157 individuals already on the payroll. The program has confusingly been dubbed “Project Detroit” and is assumed to operate by bridging all of London’s driving fines under one umbrella.

A Freedom of Information request had indicated that Transport for London describes Project Detroit as a platform with “the capability to be extended and we will be looking to build the system flexibly so that other forms of charging based on distance, vehicle type, etc could be catered for if a decision was made in future to do so.”

In 2018, the mayor’s Transport Strategy likewise said that an “integrated pay-per-mile charge could replace preexisting schemes.”

With the new hotness for urban leadership having basically been to inconvenience drivers as a way to drive up revenue in the hopes that it would likewise decrease traffic, none of this should be a surprise. Urban planners seem to have an axe to grind against the automobile these days and now without some reason. Many older cities weren't really designed with cars in mind, making it hard to adapt them as both vehicles and the broader population increase in size.

In some ways, forcing drivers to pay rolling fines whenever they leave the driveway would be a very effective tool in managing this. But critics have pointed out that such schemes effectively punish people with less money and creates rights based on income. Upper classes can easily afford the kind of fines London has been spinning up. But regular folks cannot and are becoming bitter about having to constantly interface with the government in order to use their vehicle.

At present, there appears to be a sense that an upcoming change in government could put a hold on these plans. But that’s not really what we’ve seen in the past. Despite how wildly unpopular Ultra Low Emission Zones have been, they continued being advanced. We saw this likewise happening with UK speed cameras, regardless of who was in office, until public response became so fearsome that it was actually costing the government more to maintain the cameras than they managed to earn off speeders.

ULEZ may have to endure a similar fate if leadership remains unwilling to listen to citizens. But it's also designed to be more lucrative since it basically fines anyone who drives but doesn't own an electric car. Meanwhile, New Yorkers and commuters from outside Manhattan are starting to gripe about congestion charging in NYC. The city has already begun installing cameras in locations they promised not to and protests have started with the common complaints being that many individuals cannot endure the fines and that the city refused to listen to locals so it could make money by fining automobiles.

Whether we’re talking about New York City or London, there’s a very clear divide between policy makers and the people being impacted by those decisions. These areas are also likely to see the costs of goods increase across the board as delivery costs will need to take into account the new fees. Even if you don’t drive, you’ll still indirectly be paying into the system when companies raise their prices to account for the changing logistics. London may be the tip of the spear but these policies are being advanced across the Western world. It might be something worthy of your attention before it manifests where you live.

[Image: Arbol Pro/Shutterstock]

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Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • Analoggrotto Analoggrotto on Feb 09, 2024

    Russia should leave Ukraine, Poland and such alone and take Canada.. nobody would notice or care except Alan.

    • EBFlex EBFlex on Feb 09, 2024

      It’s frightening to think Canada would absolutely be better off than what they have now. Justine “blackface” Trudeau has absolutely destroyed Canada.

  • 28-Cars-Later 28-Cars-Later on Feb 09, 2024

    " According to The Telegraph, Khan is now working up a clandestine program that would leverage preexisting camera systems to charge motorists by the mile."

    So if there are any intelligent and otherwise level-headed folks out there who are dismissive of the coming dystopia, here is evidence to the contrary. Recording mileage is part of the UK's annual MOT inspection (with only 5% travelling more than 15K miles) so leveraging this existing data would be the most efficient way to implement such an awful scheme. But as usual, mundane gov't oppression is being used as the rationale for Bond villain antics.

  • Namesakeone Since I include SUVs and minivans as trucks, I really cannot think of a brand that is truly truckless. MG maybe?
  • Sobhuza Trooper Subaru, they were almost there with the BRAT. --On a lighter note, where the hell is my Cooper Works Mini truck?
  • Mike Evs do suck, though. I mean, they really do.
  • Steve Biro I don’t care what brand but it needs to be a compact two-door with an ICE, traditional parallel hybrid or both. A manual transmission option would be nice but I don’t expect it - especially with a hybrid. Don’t show me an EV.
  • ToolGuy Lose a couple of cylinders, put the rest in a straight line and add a couple of turbos. Trust me.