Alternatives to clean air zones

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Natalie Chapman, head of south of England and urban policy at the Freight Transport Association, considers other approaches to the UK government-led scheme that could deliver longer-term benefits to air quality in urban areas.

Logistics is essential within the urban environment, with trucks and vans playing a crucial role in servicing towns and cities with the goods and services that businesses and consumers need. It is estimated that a city with a population of 1,000,000 would have around 1,874 tonnes of goods picked up or dropped off every hour by trucks alone.

Servicing the demand for daily goods has resulted in higher vehicle usage to our towns and cities, and as the effects of atmospheric pollutants on health are becoming clearer, there is increasing pressure to lower local air quality emissions.

Natalie Chapman, head of south of England and urban policy, Freight Transport Association. Photo: Professional Images/@ProfImages

As a result, the UK government has mandated a number of councils across the country to model clean air zones (CAZs). Some of these zones will charge non-compliant vehicles up to £100 per day for entering. However, any vehicles that meet the set Euro 6 emissions standard, will avoid the charge. This is in a bid to discourage the use of older, more polluting vehicles – including heavy good vehicles (HGVs) and in some cases, light goods vehicles (LGVs).

While the creation of CAZs is unavoidable in certain locations, due to legal compliance with EU targets, it is the opinion of the Freight Transport Association (FTA) that the benefits will be short-lived. Since becoming the mandatory standard for all new trucks in 2014, Euro 6 vehicles have been naturally integrated as part of fleet replacement cycles.

And whilst the standard for vans was introduced a little later, September 2016, it is estimated that by 2021 a third of vans will be Euro 6 compliant. It is therefore arguable that CAZs will only accelerate the vehicle change that is coming anyway and will not provide an ongoing air quality benefit in the longer term.

CAZs will greatly impact small businesses and those with the least means to replace vehicles. Not only will businesses need to replace their vehicles sooner than they had planned, but they also lose out on resale value of the non-compliant vehicles they are replacing as values of Euro 5 vehicles have plummeted.

FTA has explored various alternatives that would deliver longer term benefits to the air quality in urban areas, as well as greenhouse gas emissions, safety and efficiency.

One approach is to incentivise the uptake of electric and alternatively-fuelled commercial vehicles. But for businesses to significantly invest in EVs, there needs to be a review of infrastructure nationwide. More on-street charging points need to be made accessible for commercial vehicles, with local authorities working alongside electricity suppliers to ensure there is enough grid capacity to support this charging infrastructure development.

The population of urban areas is continuing to increase, generating a higher demand for deliveries and servicing activity. As a result, population growth is putting more pressure on the transport sector and results in higher levels of congestion. A leading truck manufacturer recently found that stopping three times per mile and getting back up to 30mph each time triples emissions compared to consistent cruising at 30mph.

As well as reviewing road layouts and traffic signals, retiming freight activity would also be beneficial. Moving deliveries from the morning peak to less congested times in the day, or even overnight, would help to alleviate congestion. The logistics industry would also benefit from reduced fuel consumption and journey times, resulting in increased productivity and lower costs.

This approach would also have wider environmental and social advantages, such as reduced emissions and therefore improved air quality, as well as fewer trucks on the road during peak times such as the school rush.

With logistics at the core of the UK and so many businesses and individuals now reliant on ‘just in time’ deliveries, more consideration should be made for how these CAZs will affect one the UK’s most vital sectors.

Many fear that time is running out to save our planet and while the introduction of CAZs is a positive step by government to recognise that more must be done to improve air quality, in the opinion of FTA and its members, we should not lose sight of the longer-term solutions that are available.