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How will the ULEZ change engineering?

London Bridge

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan is looking to coerce Londoners out of their cars with the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in 2019, a year ahead of schedule. But what effect will this have on how the city is engineered?

While the government is mired in court action over its delayed draft Air Quality Plan, the London mayor is quietly getting on with delivering a five year, £875M air quality agenda.

Last month Khan announced plans to introduce the ULEZ, an ultra-low emission zone covering central London, in 2019. Daily charges for driving a polluting vehicle in the zone, which operates 24 hours per day, run up to £100 for heavy goods vehicles (HGVs); that’s on top of existing charges introduced with the Low Emission Zone (LEZ) and the Congestion Charge, along with the £10 T-Charge coming in October this year.

But Khan also wants to expand the ULEZ to greater London in 2020, and run up to the North and South Circular roads in 2021. The plans need to pass consultations first but if approved, a lot of Londoners could be ditching their diesel and petrol cars.

“The good thing about it [the ULEZ] is, instead of planning and infrastructure build in isolation it will encourage a systems approach,” says Transport Systems Catapult strategic director Toby Hiles.

Upgrading a cycle highway could mean re-routing traffic, which could allow a new bus lane, and in turn create more public transport-friendly spaces. “It starts to become a shared street with a nicer environment, and then more people will walk,” he says.

WSP Parsons Brinknerhoff associate director of development Glenn Higgs takes it a step further, arguing that a focus on air quality will alter the engineer’s role in transport.

“The nature of transport planning is changing quite quickly,” he says, explaining there is more pressure to have the right knowledge to advise councils on smart mobility uptake and electric vehicle infrastructure.

“The knowledge and application of the engineer and transport planner is changing because it needs to, to follow those trends.”

It seems unlikely that the introduction of the ULEZ will result in a spike in public transport use.

“The number of vehicles on the roads going through the ULEZ won’t change that much,” says Higgs. Although Transport for London (TfL) estimates the ULEZ could result in a 50% reduction of NOx emissions from transport, due to a sharp uptake of electric vehicles (EVs), there will only be a reduction in car numbers of around 5%.

“There might be some, albeit a small proportion, of those people making vehicle trips at the moment who will be nudged to other modes, more sustainable modes possibly,” he says.

We might see more rapid charging points popping up to cope with an increase in demand from new EV owners, desperate to avoid the daily charge. This week TfL announced an £18M plan to install 300 rapid charging points across London by 2020, with part of the fund being used to upgrade local power supplies.

But what about commercial vehicles?

“Obviously the biggest impact it’s going to have initially is probably on freight movements where they’ve got less of a possibility to switch between [transport] modes.” says Hiles.

And there are lots of commercial vehicles on the road network. Around 85% of London’s goods are transported by road and freight makes up 17% of traffic. As Arup director Tim Chapman explains, our changing purchasing habits have led to more vans, lorries and HGVs on the roads.

“We are getting more deliveries: where we would once have had the post office delivering goods from five different companies to one house, now those five companies are each individually delivering five packages to the same house,” he says.

One upside of the ULEZ could be that companies are pushed towards procuring an electric fleet quicker than they would have otherwise, although lack of charging infrastructure could cause problems.

TfL is tackling that with its LoCITY programme, which aims to get commercial fleets ready for the ULEZ by working to increase availability and uptake of the latest EV models, as well as available charging points.

But the LoCITY programme, already ambitious in its aims, was set up when the ULEZ was still due in 2020 rather than 2019. Assuming the uptake of EVs and cleaner vehicles for commercial fleets takes longer than two years, there could be a significant proportion of polluting vehicles on the roads wanting to avoid a heavy fine. Is there an alternative solution?

“We need to encourage a lot more rail freight because that’s the only way you can actually decarbonise heavy freight,” says Chapman, admitting that rail capacity would need to increase for that to happen.

So will the ULEZ change the face of transport across UK cities? Or is it a London-centric experiment?

Not according to Higgs, who thinks the ULEZ is important for the whole country. “It’s really setting out the model…that can be replicated across the rest of the UK.”

Readers' comments (1)

  • David Hall

    Now, wouldn't it be innovative to see the underground and overground rail infrastructure being used in off peak (underutilised) periods to move commercial traffic off the roads ? ! ?

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