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Bike brands bank on ULEZ expansion – but will enlarged clean air zone boost active travel?

Discounts and offers aim to get drivers switching to bikes

Browsing Facebook over the weekend, a targeted ad from Brompton popped up with the question, in bold capitals, “Live in the ULEZ? Get 10% off.” Then, on Monday, an email arrived from the Dutch bike subscription brand Swapfiets, offering a discount on its Power 1 e-bike headed “Want to avoid ULEZ & save money? Here’s how.” Whether such offers will see drivers abandon their cars en masse, or tradespeople ditch their vans, is another matter.

The Brompton offer is one of a number of bike-related promotions highlighted on the Transport for London (TfL) website ahead of next Tuesday’s expansion of ULEZ, the Ultra Low Emission Zone, to cover the whole of Greater London, with owners of the most polluting vehicles required to pay a charge of £12.50 each day they are driven in the capital.

Infrastructure - Segregated cycleway alongisde A40 in Acton, LB Ealing © Simon MacMichael.jpeg

Now, here at we’re obviously all for getting more people riding bikes, no matter whether you are a seriously sporty rider, someone who wants to explore local parks and towpaths with the family over the weekend, or as your daily transport to get you to and from work and the shops.

And promotions aimed at making it easier for people to do just that – besides the two highlighted above, the TfL website also highlights ones from a number of hire bike providers, subscription services and retailers, as well as e-cargo bike companies.

ULEZ – an opportunity for active travel?

While some might see it as an attempt to drum up business on the back of a controversial topic that is currently in the news, it’s possible that such initiatives – which in the case of Brompton and we imagine others flagged by TfL are funded in part by the scrappage scheme – will encourage some to switch to two wheels.

For example, many people who currently drive a couple of miles to their local train or tube station as part of their commute could easily switch to a bike for that journey (although, rather than a discount on the cost of a bike, the provision of decent, safe infrastructure, all too often lacking in outer London boroughs, would be the single thing that might prompt more to do so).

And the inclusion of e-cargo bikes within the offers also counters another myth commonly deployed against active travel initiatives – that tradespeople can’t be expected to function without a van (try telling that to the window cleaner I often see in Acton, merrily going from job to job on his Brompton, complete with his bucket, sponges and a small folding ladder).

Specifically when it comes to ULEZ, some are warning that builders, electricians, plumbers and the like who have a non-compliant vehicle will simply pass the £12.50 cost onto their customers.

That is perhaps a minor inconvenience in the context of an emergency callout from a plumber, but one that would have to be paid, albeit grudgingly; for larger projects, such as house extensions, say, the governing factor is more likely to be the bottom-line price.

And if your competitors aren’t loading on that charge in their quotes, because their vehicles comply, it comes down to a business decision; continuing to run a polluting van subject to the charge puts you at as much a competitive disadvantage of refusing to upgrade to the latest power tools (to use one analogy, it would be like the guy you hire to put together your Ikea wardrobe turning up with a manual screwdriver rather than an electric one that gets the job done in a quarter of the time).

Confusion abounds

In its announcement of its own initiative (not featured on the TfL site), Swapfiets highlights another issue surrounding ULEZ – it’s complicated. “The controversial new charge is creating confusion and concern amongst many drivers in Greater London, as people try to work out whether their existing car is compliant and if it isn’t – how it can be converted and exactly what the new government ‘scrappage scheme’ is,” the company says [to clarify, the scrappage scheme is actually from TfL, rather than central government].

Currently, the ULEZ comprises the area within the North and South Circular Roads, following the expansion in mid-2021 of the scheme which when it went live in 2019 initially covered the same footprint as the central London Congestion Charging Zone.

London, of course, is not the only UK city that has a clean air zone, or is preparing to launch one, and until recently opposition whether in the capital or elsewhere has comprised a mixture of local (mainly opposition) councillors, concerned residents worried about how the charge might affect them (possibly due to failures in clearly communicating how it works), and a small but very visible and highly vocal bunch of what might charitably be termed conspiracy theory crackpots.

Piers Corbyn drives home from Oxford council meeting (credit - Simon MacMichael)

The forthcoming expansion of the capital’s scheme however has become highly politicised since the recent surprise Conservative by-election victory in Boris Johnson’s former seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, which lies in the borough of Hillingdon, and where ULEZ was the key campaigning issue.

We’ve explored much of that background in the article linked below, but it’s worth adding that within the current ULEZ area, there is now only one Tory-controlled borough, Kensington & Chelsea. Several of the boroughs that will find themselves within the ULEZ zone for the first time next week, however, are run by the Conservatives – and also have much higher levels of car ownership than boroughs closer to the centre. Oh, and they also recently lost a court case in which they tried to block the expansion.

> Whose ULEZ is it anyway? Political chicanery as clean air zone set to expand to outer London

City Hall said earlier this year that 90.5 per cent of vehicles observed in Greater London as a whole were ULEZ-compliant and therefore exempt from the charge, with a slightly lower compliance rate of 85 per cent in Outer London; figures in both cases would include visitors from outside the capital, who will also be subject to the charge, which also perhaps explains that lower compliance out in the suburbs.

Misunderstanding … and misinformation

Despite that high level of compliance, recent conversations with acquaintances in west London, where I live, suggest that there does remain widespread misunderstanding of the expansion of the ULEZ and its implications for drivers – and beyond that, the deliberate disinformation about it is astonishing.

One story that did the rounds after that recent by-election was that a local resident doorstepped by a Labour campaigner was worried about having to pay the charge, which they assumed was the case given what they had read in Tory campaign literature. The car that person owned? A Tesla.

Cars on the A4 at Brentford (copyright Simon MacMichael).JPG

Now, that’s anecdotal, as is the episode I’m about to relate – but given other conversations I have had, the following does illustrate what I feel is a widespread misconception about the expansion (it speaks volumes that the person who tends to be the most clued-up when the topic in the pub turns to ULEZ is someone – me – who has never driven a car in his life, far less owned one).

We live within the area that became part of the ULEZ when it was last expanded, in 2021. A friend we visit regularly lives on the other side of the North Circular, and would always give us a lift home when we went to her place.

Shortly before the 2021 expansion, she told us she’d probably have to stop doing that, because of the charge, based on what she’d read in a leaflet that had been thrust through her letterbox.

This, from someone who a few months earlier had bought a brand new car, which of course is exempt because it is well within the emissions standards.

Naturally, after the expanded zone came into effect, she quickly realised that she didn’t have to pay a penny (and we still get our lifts home).

Likewise, I think there will be a lot of drivers in outer London and beyond who, come the end of this month, will get a pleasant surprise when they find out they’re exempt from the charge.

And if, before that lightbulb has switched on in their heads, they’ve reduced their car use for those short trips that can be walked, cycled, or done using public transport, and carry on with that habit – well, so much the better for all of us.

Cleaner air is a good thing ... no?

Let’s be clear about one thing. The expansion of a clean air zone in the nation’s capital is not part of what some people – even at the highest levels of government – would like to portray as The War on the Motorist.

It’s not even primarily about promoting active travel and public transport over using a car, although that of course is an important element of tackling climate change and making our cities more liveable.

What it is, is a necessary public health intervention aimed at preventing an estimated 4,000 premature deaths of Londoners each year due to poor air quality, by removing the most harmful vehicles from our roads.

That’s not a bad thing… is it?

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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