The European cities driving the fight against pollution


As Europe’s city pollution crisis ramps up, we look at the governmental initiatives aimed at improving the urban environment and the potential impact of these schemes on the world of fleet management.


‘Free-from’ boom

The impact of air pollution and the resulting climate emergency has become a defining issue of our time. The New Year will see widespread global initiatives to make our planet cleaner, greener and safer. Will this be the decade when the most popular way to commute into cities is to walk or cycle? Will major urban roads and service stations become obsolete – replaced by tree lined café culture pedestrian zones?

‘Free-from’ was the buzzword of the last decade. Our diets went dairy free, gluten free and meat free. Our beauty and cleaning products are gradually going palm oil free.

Crusaders, lobbyists and even our children made governments stop and listen – and take action.  

Currently dominating this free zeitgeist are the 3Ps – plastic, petrol and pollution – the most talked about philanthropic trends taking over the political and social agenda.

So as one of the biggest contributors of two of the Ps, is the travel and transport industry set to go into a ‘free-from’ revolution as government and corporate strategies prioritise eco-initiatives?  Diesel and petrol-free is no longer wishful thinking. It’s the only future.

Subsequently, in the UK there were around 246,000 electric vehicles registered by the end of October 2019, in a move towards the government’s target to halve non-electric vehicle sales by 2030 and ending them completely by 2040.  Despite this growth, EVs are still significantly outnumbered by the 30 million fossil fuel-powered cars currently on UK roads.

The pollution picture is the same across Europe. There is a reticence towards adopting electric vehicles due to the uncertainty over restricted battery range and limited national charging networks, meaning some fleets are still persisting with petrol and driving diesel.


Reaching pollution stale mate

Despite some of the pan-European green initiatives and increasing awareness of the health impact of pollution, it is disappointing that little progress has been made tackling air quality in Europe.

The European Environment Agency’s Air Quality in Europe 2019 report revealed that levels of PM2.5 – a dangerous fine particulate matter emitted largely from vehicle engines which can lodge in the lungs and pass into the bloodstream, appear to have reached a plateau after more than a decade of gradual reductions.  In 2016, there were about 412,000 premature deaths in Europe from PM2.5, according to the European Environment Agency (EEA), the continent’s environmental watchdog.

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels mainly attributed to diesel vehicles also remain a serious problem. An Oxford study found that around 10,000 people die prematurely in Europe each year due to pollution from diesel cars alone. In 2017, about 10 per cent of monitoring stations in Europe showed levels above safe limits.

Not only does air pollution cause almost 500,000 premature deaths in Europe every year, according to EEA, but it is now being linked to an increasing range of other health issues, including miscarriage and even teenage psychosis.

Clearly there is still a long way to go on the journey to eradicate the air pollution epidemic.

So which European cities are the leaders and the laggards in the fight to eradicate pollution-laden diesel and petrol vehicles? 


Cleaning up their act

The aim of achieving zero-emission or car-free city status is not without its challenges. Though self-service bike sharing and public transport are widely available in most European cities, it’s notoriously difficult to change a driver’s commuting habit or business travel and transportation strategy by appealing to moral conscience alone. That’s why solving the issue has had to become a legislative and monetary form of attack.

Here’s what’s being done in some of Europe’s major cities.



London’s congestion charge was the first such scheme in a major European city and has seen a 30 per cent reduction in cars entering the city centre since it was introduced in 2003.

Lorries, large vans, buses and coaches over a certain weight have also had to meet certain emissions standards to be allowed into the city since 2012.

In April 2019, The Mayor of London launched the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in central London in order to clean up the city’s stifling air. Vehicles driving in the ULEZ must meet strict emission standards or pay a daily charge to travel within the restricted area.



The Spanish capital has made an area of 472 hectares within the city centre off-limits to vehicles not belonging to residents or public transportation.

All other vehicles are only able to enter this area if they carry an environmental certificate in an attempt to reduce the toxic air.  



A 2018 study found that Paris has the second worst air quality among 13 European cities and has subsequently committed to banning diesel vehicles altogether by 2025.

The city’s mayor has imposed numerous and drastic driving restrictions.

All vehicles have to display a sticker attesting to how polluting they are and cars manufactured before 1997 have been banned from the city centre on weekdays.  Since 2017, diesel vehicles have had to meet emission standards to be allowed on Parisian streets.

Additional measures include the first Sunday of every month is car-free from 10am to 6pm and the city regularly closes some of the worst-polluted streets such as the Champs Elysées on the first Sunday of each month. Furthermore, certain streets are limited to electric vehicles only.

Lorries and heavy goods vehicles are banned from entering the city at certain times and the city even tried to tackle the problem by only allowing vehicles with even-numbered registration plates one day, then odd the next.

Public transport is free during peak pollution periods to encourage people to leave their vehicles at home.



The Norwegian capital is on a mission to become carbon neutral by 2030 and 2019 saw a series of car-free measures, including restricted access for private vehicles, new pedestrian walkways, 700 fewer parking spaces and toll stations to deter polluting traffic.

There is already a charge for entering the city centre on Mondays to Fridays, but the city is planning to ban private vehicles from the city centre altogether. It is heavily investing in public transport and increasing the number of cycle lanes.

During periods of high pollution, the city bans the use of diesel vehicles that do not meet pollution standards, and, like Paris, allows vehicles with odd then even numbered registration plates to enter on alternate days.



A toll system to apply congestion taxes is now enforced in the city – if the car is registered in Sweden, the payment is automatic as the vehicle drives through the toll station. Vehicles from abroad are not exempt, the Swedish Transport Agency identifies the owner of the vehicle and issues an invoice.



Streets ahead in the car-free battle, the city has one of the lowest rates of car ownership in Europe thanks to being bike-friendly – more than half the population cycle to work each day. These healthy commuting habits are encouraged by a number of bicycle-only superhighways and pedestrian-only zones that were introduced way back in the 60s when air quality wasn’t even on everyone’s eco-conscience or political agendas.



The city ultimately aims to ban all diesel vehicles by 2030 but has imposed a 400euro fine on diesel vehicles that enter the low-emission zone which is enforced via hundreds of recognition security cameras.

Brussels is also pushing free alternative forms of transportation including subway, trams, buses, and shared bikes on high-air-pollution days.



Rome tried to reduce pollution by allowing only cars with number plates ending in either odd or even numbers to circulate on alternate days.

Disappointingly, such regulations were widely flouted – many bought a cheap, used car with a different number plate and bans and fines were lightly enforced by traffic police.

A recent initiative will see diesel cars banned altogether from the centre by 2024 in a bid to combat the pollution that is damaging public health and the stone monuments and bronze sculptures it is famous for.



Despite being a leader in the green crusade to reduce emissions and clean car adoption, Zurich has gone even further in the pollution battle and has capped the number of parking spaces and number of cars allowed in the city at any one time. It is also creating more car-free areas, tram lines and pedestrianised streets.



Berlin has decided to ban older diesel cars from several roads in the city with elevated pollution levels and create dozens of zones with a 30km/hr speed limit which were previously 50 km/hr. Residents living in those streets are exempt, along with delivery and health services and construction companies who operate in those areas.

Parking fees and the number of charged parking areas in Berlin’s city centre will both double in a bid to deter drivers from entering the city.



Amsterdam remains one of the most polluted cities in Amsterdam, despite its famous love affair with cycling.  Both cars and motorbikes running on petrol or diesel will be banned from driving in Amsterdam from 2030 and buses that emit exhaust fumes will no longer enter the city centre from 2022. By 2025, the ban will be extended to waterway pleasure crafts, mopeds and light mopeds.



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