Driving a car in London can be hazardous. It is not so much the difficulty of handling a car on the city’s congested streets – driving is technically far trickier among central Dublin’s kamikaze motorists than among more rules-conscious Londoners.
Rather, the hazard lies in the potential damage to your wallet. Turn up the wrong street and it could cost a fortune in charges.
The planned expansion across all of London this summer by Mayor Sadiq Khan of the city’s ultra-low emission zone (Ulez) is the latest front in the wearying tribal, political and culture war between supporters of the Conservative and Labour parties. Khan’s office regularly suggests his Ulez critics are mostly “climate change deniers and conspiracy theorists”.
Most Irish people will have heard of the £15 per day congestion charges levied on car owners who drive inside central London during restricted hours. The scheme was 20 years old in February. Congestion charge zones are marked by red signs large enough to be considered fair warning but small enough to be missed by drivers not paying sufficient attention.
Drivers are fined close to £200 for failing to pay a charge. As a consequence, most ordinary people, apart from the wealthy Qataris and Emiratis who inexplicably ship their cars to Mayfair and Knightsbridge for shopping trips, simply avoid driving in central London at all. There is no need to when the public transport system is so extensive.
The Ulez scheme is targeted at older cars and runs on top of the congestion charges. It is less heralded but potentially far more expensive for ordinary motorists. It runs for 24 hours a day and covers a far wider zone, including many residential areas. Khan intends to widen it further this summer, a move being challenged in court by four Tory-run London councils.
If an older car doesn’t qualify for an exemption based upon its emissions, its owner is hit with a charge of £12.50 for each day it is driven within a Ulez zone. Exemptions apply to more recently manufactured cars – most diesel cars built after 2015 qualify, as do most petrol cars made after 2006. The scheme is enforced by a network of traffic cameras that record journeys within the zone. For those driving a non-compliant car who spot a green Ulez zone sign, the temptation is to perform an immediate handbrake turn to avoid a £12.50 levy for driving to the shops.
The scheme was considered by Boris Johnson when he was mayor but first introduced by Khan in 2019. Initially, it covered only the same central London zone as the separate congestion charges. In 2021, Khan extended Ulez to cover all areas within London’s north and south circular roads, bringing in residential districts such as Camden and Hackney to the north, Ealing to the west, Tower Hamlets and Greenwich to the east and most of Lambeth and Southwark to the south.
The recent political clashes are because Khan plans to extend Ulez to cover all London boroughs from August 29th, including parts of outer London that run close to the M25 motorway. Yet, these are not congested zones and cover suburban areas where many ordinary Londoners live, driving ordinary cars. Johnson says such areas were never meant to be covered by Ulez and he has accused Khan of a money grab to plug a £1.5 billion hole in Transport for London’s finances.
Khan argues that 4,000 Londoners die each year from air pollution and Ulez has been proven to improve air quality by taking older cars off the road. This week, Khan hit his opponents where it hurts by referring to research that shows better air quality improves sperm counts.
His opponents insist the scientific evidence for some of his claims is flimsy and the Ulez extension will hit poorer Londoners hardest.
For example, owners of most diesel cars over eight years old must either shell out at least £10,000 to £12,000 for a new Ulez-complaint vehicle, or pay up to £4,550 in annual charges for the privilege of daily driving (there is an amnesty only for Christmas day).
My car is a 2013 diesel so I suspect it would fail the Ulez test if I brought it over to London. I cannot be completely sure because its Irish registration isn’t compatible with the online plate checker, which runs registration data against Ulez emissions standards. I could dig up and check the emission standards for the model myself before re-registering it in London. Or, I could simply buy a new car. But, why bother? Instead, the plan is to dispense with it altogether and experiment with a car-free family life in London, which possibly underlines some of the arguments for Ulez in the first place.