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Writing by Fleur O'Reilly. Artwork by Isabela Caramico.

What Sadiq Khan’s ULE zone means and what more can be done.

As someone who’s lived in New York and London their whole life, accustomed to the polluted streets and unclean air, it wasn’t until I arrived in Scotland for university that I discovered a life less inhibited by my asthma. London’s pollution levels are 5 times over the EU legal air limit. This affects everyone, leading to the deaths of 4000-9,400 each year and causing countless long-term health implications.

As a teenager, I grew up next door to one of the most polluted roads in the UK, with the road exceeding the EU air pollution limit within 8 days of the new year in the 2010s. As such, I welcome the ULEZ and all that the mayor is doing to limit pollution. Rather, I believe that the backlash originates from a place of ignorance.

The ULEZ, which was an expansion of the congestion charge introduced originally in 2003, means that vehicles producing over a certain amount of emission (normally diesel cars) and who therefore don’t meet the standard must pay £12.50 per day in order to discourage heavy polluting cars. The effect of these policies could already be seen, since the expansion of the ULEZ in 2016 the number of schools in areas with illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide reduced from 455 to 14 and saw a 94% reduction in the number of people living in these areas. We can therefore see the positive impact these policies have on communities in reducing noise and air pollution, Londoners are being licensed a far greater quality of life. Furthermore, the money raised by these charges is supposedly reinvested in the city and its public transport, Transport for London (TfL) forecasts show that the expected net budgeted revenue for the Congestion Charge as a whole is £232 million for this financial year.

There has been controversy over this policy with many complaining over additional costs for businesses and commuters during a cost-of-living crisis. Roughly 100,000 cars have been affected by the latest ULEZ expansion, supposedly costing drivers an extra £4,500 a year. Understandably this is a key complaint with the ULEZ, adding additional financial pressure to families without making public transport cheaper is undeniably a deep flaw of the mayor’s scheme. According to certain sources, the expansion also cost TFL around £400 million to install cameras which could be used on 1000 new electric buses. This claim has been levied by the conservative party in opposition to the mayor and fails to take into consideration the long-term benefits of the policy as well as failing to provide sources for those statistics.

But is the ULEZ enough? The policy is only estimated to cause a 4.8 per cent reduction in total car trips both in trips entirely within the ULEZ expansion area and entering the ULEZ expansion area from outside London. More action is needed across London and the UK at a much quicker rate. The Scottish Free Bus policy is one example of what London should be looking to; how can we expect a decrease in cars when public transport across London and England is priced extortionately and often proves unreliable. People need public transport to be more accessible before considering abandoning their cars. Only 50 years ago England had an efficient and expansive rail connection covering a large majority of the country, and yet, since 1963 England has seen an extensive demise of rail tracks with 5,000 miles of track cut. The quality of the remaining trains have seen a decline in quality and frequency, as well as an uptake in prices which must be reversed in order to incentivise people to give up their cars. Hopefully, we can look towards the future and see cities with fewer privately owned vehicles, cities where public transport is the dominant mode of transport and where cars are redundant. In what is often considered a global capital, one which takes pride in being a first-world country, we shouldn’t be dying of poor air because of the profit to be made from cars.

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