Ross Clark Ross Clark

Sadiq Khan’s Ulez has spectacularly backfired

A sticker protesting against the Ultra Low Emission Zone (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

What was that about Sadiq Khan’s expansion of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) supposedly helping to reduce our dependence on cars and clean up the air? As well as the stick of charges of non-compliant vehicles, Khan has rolled out a very large carrot: £121 million of funds to help motorists ‘transition to greener alternatives’. That includes £49 million worth of scrappage grants for cars, at £2,000 a time, and £72 million worth of scrappage payments for vans and minibuses. According to City Hall in a press release last October, the whole package has resulted in 80,000 fewer motorists driving around London.

So London’s streets are presumably now much less congested than they were before Ulez was brought in? Er, not quite. According to the sat nav maker TomTom, congestion last year was actually worse than it was before Ulez and the pandemic. In 2023, motorists spent an average of 45 per cent of their journey time stuck in jams, up from 37 per cent in 2019. If there really are fewer motorists using cars around London – and on past records it is not unreasonable to be sceptical of data presented by the mayor’s office – there have clearly been other changes which have impacted on journey times, for example from low traffic neighbourhoods.

Transport for London’s own statistics refute the idea that there has been a shift towards greener forms of transport since Ulez was introduced. While road traffic has recovered to within 5 per cent of the level it was prior to the pandemic, bus and tube usage is still 20 per cent lower than it was. Obviously, Ulez isn’t the only factor at play there. The pandemic led to a collapse in public transport use, as we were told to stay at home and avoid it, and helped cause a permanent shift in work patterns. Rush hours are a lot quieter now, especially on Fridays, when Khan recently lifted peak travel restrictions to try to encourage people back to tubes and buses.

But the fact that road traffic levels have recovered faster than public transport use suggests that changes in work patterns have hampered a shift to ‘greener travel’. When people do leave their homes, whether for work, leisure or shopping, it seems they are more inclined to do so by car. Indeed, the kind of jobs which cannot be done from home – such as nursing, caring or building trades – tend also to be the ones which are hard to do by public transport.

Sadiq Khan promised cleaner air and less traffic. The first might well have been achieved – although air pollution levels have been falling sharply for the past 70 years, and the more polluting, older vehicles would have steadily been removed from the roads, Ulez or no Ulez. But it is a lot more difficult for the Mayor to claim that he has cut traffic – on the contrary, in some ways it appears now to be worse.

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