Low emission zones: challenges and solutions

13 October 2021

Cities are increasingly limiting the type of vehicles or the time cars can enter urban cores for many reasons, including air pollution reduction and better safety for all road users. This has left the door open for urban logistics solutions such as electric vehicle fleets, last-mile delivery via cargo bike or urban consolidation centres, among others.

A consensus among major cities in Europe has formed over the past ten years that polluting vehicles should be reduced in city centres, giving more space for pedestrians or cyclists, mainly increasing the cities’ liveability and safety. There are many ways to reach this goal. Most cities try a combination of growing cycling infrastructure, promoting public transport use, or increasing electric vehicle charging points.


But another critical tool at cities’ disposal is Urban Vehicle Access Regulation Schemes, better known as Low Emissions Zones (LEZs), Zero Emissions Zones (ZEZs) or congestion charging zones. Most major European capitals and large cities have some scheme in operation that attempts to limit polluting vehicles’ access to the city centre. According to Transport & Environment, there were more than 250 LEZs in Europe in 2019, which is expected to increase.

Generally, these schemes are effective at reducing air pollution and traffic congestion. A recent example from Brussels shows that one year after the LEZ was set up, the city experienced an 11% reduction in NOx and a reduction of 11.5% of Particulate Matter (PM2.5). However, some stakeholders, such as city centre businesses, may rely on heavy-duty vehicles entering the urban core to provide their stock. What’s more, the EU’s report on the Treatment of logistics activities in Urban Vehicle Access Regulation Schemes from 2017 points out that LEZs could push polluting vehicles to drive around the restricted zones, causing an increase in air pollution elsewhere.


How can cities reconcile urban access policies for decarbonisation with the need of businesses and individuals to move goods around urban areas? To find out how this works in practice, three ULaaDS cities describe their experiences below. The town of Mechelen currently has a car-free city centre, while Bergen and Groningen are presently establishing their own schemes.


Bergen has quite a unique geographic situation. What are some of the challenges and opportunities you are looking at when planning a Zero Emission Zone (ZEZ)?

Lars Petter Klem, Project manager at The Urban Environment Agency of Bergen:

“The City of Bergen has committed to making the whole city centre area a zero-emission zone by 2030, and started by piloting in smaller areas in the first half of 2020. The city is located in a narrow valley and borders the sea. This geography makes it difficult to define pilot zones that are small enough to avoid blocking essential traffic in the centre, while also being important enough to reduce CO2 emissions and give incentives for companies to replace their diesel vans with zero-emission vehicles.

Of course, there’s also a need for a legal framework to put the zones into action. This spring, our national government has pledged to start a dialogue with the cities that want to pilot ZEZs (for the time being, the City of Bergen and the City of Oslo) but have also demanded that such zones exclude roads that are part of the national road grid. In the case of Bergen, we do have an international E-road (E16) located in the very centre of our city, making it a bit difficult to reach our goal. Hopefully, our pilot zones will prove that this decision is not necessary, making it possible to turn our entire city into a zero-emission zone by 2030.

Bergen’s car sale records from March 2021 prove that zero-emission zones are not something that will make our city areas inaccessible for cars, with 71% of new passenger cars and 42% of new vans being electric. Major companies will be launching their electric trucks by this summer.”

The City of Bergen has committed to making the whole city centre a zero-emission zone by 2030.


Groningen has drawn up a strategy to reduce freight and deliver traffic in the inner-city centre with the plan – ‘Ruimte voor Zero Emissie Stadslogistiek’ (Space for Zero Emissions City Logistics). How will this change the city in the next five years?

Sjouke van der Vlugt, Senior Policy Officer for Urban Development at the Municipality of Groningen:

With the plan ‘Space for Zero-Emission City Logistics’, we worked out our contribution to the national Climate Agreement of 2019, which states that approximately forty Dutch cities will set up a zero-emission zone by 2025 to jointly save one megaton of CO2 per year.

More space for you! In a clean and safe city centre. That is what the city of Groningen wants to achieve. However, we notice that the city centre is becoming increasingly crowded. This means that we must be smart with the use of available space. We’re taking all kinds of measures for logistics traffic. Several are about reducing the number of trucks and delivery vans in the city centre and the logistics traffic that still runs in the city centre must be emission-free and operate safely. We do this with, among other things, stricter rules for deliveries for shops, companies, and the hospitality sector. Fewer trucks and delivery vans mean more space for pedestrians and cyclists in a beautiful, lively city centre.”

The City of Groningen is one of several Dutch cities setting up a zero-emission zone by 2025 to save one megaton of CO2 per year collectively. Image credit: HansRavensbergen


Some business owners may hear “car-free zones” and think “deliveries will be made more difficult”. This is clearly not the case, but how do you get businesses to agree to a car-free zone in the city centre? What arguments have you made in Mechelen to convince them?

Roos Lowette, Project Coordinator in the Mobility Team of the City of Mechelen:

In the inner city of Mechelen, a few strategic streets are car-free between 11 am and 6 pm. The city highly invests in and values participatory processes. When initially implementing and expanding car-free zones, these processes turned out very valuable. Evidently, inhabitants and retailers were concerned about the changes that were about to take place and would affect their daily lives. But through participation, concerns evaporated, and the added value of the new reality was embraced.

Give it time, don’t rush these decisions, have all the stakeholders experience the new reality themselves and convince them by highlighting what’s in it for them. Traffic safety, a higher quality of life and creating more space for people are arguments that work.

Bruul, an important shopping street, has been a car-free zone since 2013. It turns out that after initial concerns, retailers embraced the change and the difficulties that they anticipated turned out to be minor after all. For example, every retailer can obtain a permit for one vehicle to enter or exit the city during car-free hours. Retailers arranged their permits and coordinated with their couriers to respect the new time windows for deliveries. The retailers who replenish their supplies themselves either adapted to the new hours or used the permitted vehicle. 

By meeting retailers and inhabitants with benefits – the “carrot” – resistance because of taking away a comfortable status quo – the “stick”  –  lowers. Experience teaches us that you need both the carrot and the stick to convince stakeholders.”

Based on these cities’ experiences, solutions to logistics in the towns with LEZs or ZEZs can come in many forms. Although a certain level of traffic will need to enter the urban core, the harmful effects of pollution, congestion and road safety can be mitigated through mobility innovations, including but not limited to:

  • Light (electric) vehicles: Cargo bikes can be used for last-mile deliveries of goods up to 250kg in weight, but with the possibility to increase this to around 500 kilograms with trailers and electric assist. Some cargo bikes are even fitted with refrigeration units to allow for last-mile distribution of perishables.
  • Off-hour delivery: This is a quick fix to adapt logistics to LEZs, ZEZs and congestion charging zones that offer businesses the option to receive deliveries outside of conventional working hours when there are fewer cars, pedestrians, and cyclists city centres.
  • Electrifying fleets: Sales of electric vehicles more than doubled in the EU in 2020, and advances in battery range and charging infrastructure means that their popularity will only continue to grow.
  • Urban Consolidation Centres (UCCs): Logistic facilities are located close to where they serve and collect and distribute goods from different factories, warehouses, and other production sites to local businesses or even individuals.

This article was originally published on and co-authored by Nacho Sarrió and Lorena Axinte (Bax & Company)


Arianna Americo Project & forum coordinator
Fraser Moore Eurocities Writer