Stockholm has a new (tough) plan to ban polluting vehicles

23 November 2023

Who says that cities can’t imitate rural areas, and offer the same quiet and green surroundings to their residents?

Chirping birds instead of honking cars? That might be the scene in Stockholm in the future as the city moves to burnish its environmental credentials by banning access to the most polluting vehicles.

Next year, the Swedish capital plans to set up a particularly restrictive low-emission zone in the city centre.  The scheme will enter into force on 31 December 2024, a seemingly symbolic date heralding not just the start of a new year, but a new era for the municipality’s ambition to improve air and life quality.

Petrol and diesel cars will be unable to drive through the low-emission zones. Access will instead be granted to fully electric and fuel cell vehicles, as well as natural gas vehicles and plug-in hybrid vans that meet current Euro 6 emission standards.

Traffic in Stockholm
Traffic in Stockholm. Photo: Mike Kienle

“Nowadays, the air in Stockholm causes babies to have lung conditions and the elderly to die prematurely. We need to eliminate the harmful exhaust gases from petrol and diesel cars,” says Lars Stromgren, Stockholm’s Deputy-Mayor for Transport.

Stromgren, who hails from the Swedish Green party, is the brainchild of the initiative, a pledge of his 2022 local election campaign.

Although hundreds of municipalities across Europe are already limiting petrol and diesel car access, Stromgren calls this “the most ambitious scheme to date.”

“Many cities have implemented low-emission zones where high-emission cars are allowed to drive if they pay a charge. Stockholm’s model is more far-reaching: petrol and diesel cars are prohibited, period. It is more ‘ultra’ than the ultra low-emission zone in London,” the Deputy-Mayor explains.

Lars Stromgren, Stockholm's Deputy-Mayor for Transport.
Lars Stromgren, Stockholm’s Deputy-Mayor for Transport. Photo: Alexander Donka.

The ban will first be enforced 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in a central commercial district,  “our little Manhattan,” as Stromgren calls the area built in the 1960’s.

A ripple effect

The establishment of a low-emission zone will help Stockholm to hit multiple environmental targets, improving air quality and noise pollution, curbing traffic and reducing overall reliance on vehicles.

Stromgren hopes that the ban will foster the purchase of electric vehicles and an increase in e-mobility uptake. With this effort, Stockholm will also get ahead of the game before the EU starts banning the sale of new internal combustion engine cars and vans in 2035.

For the Deputy Mayor ,”the low-emission zone could be a clear incentive for introducing new technology and innovative solutions” in sustainable mobility such as cargo bikes.” And not only that: “One of our research projects is testing the possibility to use low-emission vehicles for both the delivery of goods and garbage collection,” Stromgren adds.

A street in Stockholm's city centre
A street in Stockholm’s city centre. Photo: Linus Mimietz

Although initially tapped for the ban, Stockholm’s Old Town was eventually excluded from the plan. The historical area, which sits on an island and borders the future zero-emission zone, boasts low car traffic anyway so local authorities came up with a different idea, Stromgren says.

“We want to introduce another plan in the Old Town: we want to take away some 140 parking spots, remove car lanes, and use that space to widen bike lanes and pedestrian areas to create a nicer environment,” the Deputy Mayor says.

Although the low-emission zone scheme is awaiting the final seal of approval from the local council, Stromgren is confident that it will enter into force next year, and that it could soon be expanded to additional areas of the city centre.

Vehicle restrictions on the rise

Stockholm’s zero-emission initiative falls under the umbrella of the so-called Urban Vehicle Access Regulations. Also known by their acronym, UVARs help local governments to comply with EU air quality rules, contain congestion and improve road safety.

The category includes restrictions such as limited traffic zones, pedestrian areas, toll charges and parking schemes, and is particularly relevant as air quality remains a pressing concern for cities.

Vehicles in Brussels.

In 2019 alone, air pollution caused 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide, World Health Organisation’s data show.

With figures from the European Environment Agency showing that air pollution in the EU exceeds levels recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO), vehicle access restrictions are a powerful tool for cities to keep in line with climate targets.

Low-emission and zero-emission zones have gained momentum over the past few years and are projected to continue to expand in the future. ‘A new wave of low-emission zones is on its way,’ titles a section of a 2022 report by the Clean Cities Campaign.

According to the study, in the 27 EU countries, Norway and the UK, low-emission zones have grown from 228 to 320 between 2019 and 2022. Clean Cities predicts that by 2025, the number will jump to 507.

Urban access regulations are particularly popular in countries like the UK, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Denmark.

Municipalities like Brussels and Paris are planning to soon impose tighter restrictions to existing low-emission zones, limiting entry to additional vehicle categories. In addition, the French capital, Amsterdam, Eindhoven and other Dutch municipalities have pledged to establish the ambitious zero-emission zones by 2030.

Top photo: a boat pulls in to the port of Stockholm.








Daniela Berretta Eurocities Writer