How Can Low Emission Zones Work in the US?

Written By: EightySix 

Edited By: Assen Gueorguiev

How do you encourage people to buy cars that pollute less? Don't let them drive anything else.

Low emission zones (LEZs) have been spreading across the globe. Cities are controlling air pollution by banning vehicles that contaminate the most. In Asia and Europe, civic governments are taking steps in the name of air quality that the United States is too timid to take.

The First: Tokyo

In 2001, Tokyo began to implement a program to clean up diesel-powered commercial vehicles. The ordnance required the retrofitting of older trucks and busses with particulate matter filters. Diesel mixed with heavy oil was banned. Idling while loading and unloading was prohibited. Any business with over 30 vehicles must have an environmental management plan in place. Businesses with over 200 vehicles must have a certain percentage of low emission vehicles.

Later on in 2003, Tokyo officially created its first LEZ. 

Putting political views aside, we have to give the Obama Administration credit for the recently passed executive order. As some of you may know, it aims at most federal agencies, which have to reduce at least 40% of harmful emissions by 2025. And during the next decade they must also replace 50% of their fleet with plug-in hybrid or fully electric vehicles. 

The Most: Germany

Over 200 European cities currently have or are implementing Low Emissions Zones. The European Union has a protocol for cleaning up emissions (also known as the European Emission Standards). Incrementally, all vehicles sold in the EU must meet increasingly stricter regulations. The level of emissions for each is represented by a sticker. Cars, trucks and buses without the proper sticker cannot enter the zone.

Germany has over a third of the LEZs in Europe. The plan began in 2008 after Germany failed to meet European air quality standards. Failure to have the proper sticker earns a 40 euro fine.

The Biggest: London

Beginning in 2008, an LEZ was placed over most of the city of London, which has some of the worst air in Europe. It mostly targets the heaviest diesel vehicles. Mayor Boris Johnson is aiming to continue improving the city's automobiles until he's established an Ultra-Low Emissions Zone by 2020. Already the $15.50 congestion charge for most fuel-burning vehicles has encouraged Londoners to purchase electric city cars.

The law is enforced by a system of Automatic Number Plate Recognition Cameras. Signs around the city indicate when drivers are about to enter the zone, remind them they are being watched and suggests detours to avoid the LEZ.

The Strictest: Italy

Italy goes above and beyond the European standard. Several Italian cities have Restricted Traffic Zones where all motor travel is banned during certain hours. Misinformed drivers can receive a fine for every time they pass a traffic camera. They can be ticketed, without being stopped by the police, for simply driving a high-emission vehicle in the wrong place. Additionally, restrictions apply in some cities to vehicles over 7.5 meters and two stroke motorbikes. In some places daily charges are applied to all gas or diesel vehicles with more than two wheels.

A Higher Standard

The average American light vehicle in 2013, according to the EPA, produced 229 grams of CO2 per kilometer. According to JATO Dynamics, Europe averaged under 130. It’s a fact, the Europeans are driving more efficient cars than the Americans. Their governments are pushing harder to clean up. What can we do about it?

Follow their example. The good news is: it's easier to change a town than a nation. An American city cannot have a lower standard than the EPA's for vehicle emissions, but it can have a higher one. Change can start at the civic level. Here are three possible plans:

San Francisco, California

The City by the Bay can use geography and its toll structure to slow down the entry of high-pollution vehicles. Presently, crossing the Bay Bridge or Golden Gate bridge to get into the city costs $5-7. Publish a list defining zero, low, regular and high emissions vehicles. Let the zeroes in for free. Charge the lows less and the highs more.

Give the public a year to adjust. Have California revive the Cash for Clunkers program. Use television and the internet to educate drivers on green options even further and encourage purchasing.

A little at a time, the vehicles on the street will get cleaner.

Palo Alto, California

For certain, making Tesla headquarters a low emission zone is self-serving for the company, but Elon Musk has always boldly pursued what he thinks is right. Use electric Low Speed Vehicles for all city deliveries. Provide free parking for green cars.

Utilize a camera system like London to enforce a fine system for offending vehicles. The network does not need to be as expensive or extensive as London's. It can be mainly symbolic. Keep the fines light and waive them easily if, for example, the violator executes some sort of carbon offset like planting a tree.

Palo Alto needs to be careful not to be a bully here, but rather a gentle guide.

Anytown, USA

Changing a big city is harder than changing a small town. Hopefully some day in the not so distant future, a mayor and a city council will be stalwart enough to just say no to gasoline and diesel. Welcome visitors by politely offering them a ride into town while they park their car outside. Enjoy our electric bus service. Ogle our expansive solar array and the state's largest wind turbine. Would you like to test drive an EV?

Build a zero emission Carmax-style dealership. Bring in new and used green cars. Teach visitors about how they work, how to charge them and how to maintain them. Sit down with the curious and crunch some numbers. Chances are the right purchase can fit their family's driving style, save them money and reduce their carbon footprint.

Yes, you could be the mayor of the best place to buy a green car for miles around. Your town could become a tourist destination.

Why Not the US?

Why are over 200 European cities controlling their emissions better than almost any city in the US? Is it the love affair with the big car? Is it our love of freedom and unwillingness to compromise?

We need a nudge, from one community at a time, in the green direction. When we see the toll to enter San Francisco or when we realize Palo Alto might care more than we do, things may change.

Maybe we need a trip to Greencarsville, USA.