Oxford prepares for electric car future. Britons may be cool to the cost.

Simon Montlake/The Christian Science Monitor
Goods are unloaded next to an electric delivery truck behind an indoor market in Oxford, England, Nov 5, 2021. The market lies inside a zero-emission zone that would be the first in the U.K. to charge conventional cars a daily fee to enter.

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The English city of Oxford is set to implement some of the strictest green rules for cars in the United Kingdom. Starting in February, drivers of nonelectric vehicles will have to pay £10 ($13.50) a day to enter a zero-emission zone in the city’s historic core.

The idea is to nudge drivers to consider buying an electric vehicle. These cars now make up a fifth of new auto sales in affluent cities like Oxford. By 2030, the British government plans to end the sale of new gas and diesel cars. Proponents say zoning cities now for low or zero emissions is a way to speed up that transition by ratcheting up the cost of owning polluting vehicles, while also encouraging more people to walk or cycle.

Why We Wrote This

Voters in wealthy nations like the United Kingdom agree that fighting climate change is a global good. But when it comes to making personal sacrifices, their green enthusiasm fades.

But many Britons remain wary of the cost of going green at a time of rising global prices, including for the fossil fuels on which the world still depends.

Kelvin Che, a restaurant worker driving in the zone, isn’t ready to trade in his 15-year-old gasoline car. Next time, he’ll probably take the bus. “I’d prefer not to pay,” he says, adding that he supports the city’s green policies. “It’s a good direction.”

In a lane bounded by a medieval college and the entrance to an indoor market, Kelvin Che backs his white BMW sedan into a parking spot. As Mr. Che waits for a friend, small trucks disgorge goods for the market, a warren of independent stalls that first opened in 1776. 

This lane is among a cluster in Oxford’s historic core that are zoned for zero emissions. Starting in February, drivers of nonelectric vehicles will have to pay £10 ($13.50) a day to enter the zone, making this city of 150,000 the first in the United Kingdom to set such a strict standard. 

The idea is to nudge drivers like Mr. Che to consider buying an electric vehicle (EV). These cars now make up a fifth of new auto sales in affluent cities like Oxford. By 2030, the British government plans to end the sale of new gas and diesel cars. Proponents say zoning cities now for low or zero emissions is a way to speed up that transition by ratcheting up the cost of owning polluting vehicles, while also encouraging more people to walk or cycle, a lifestyle trend that surged during pandemic lockdowns.

Why We Wrote This

Voters in wealthy nations like the United Kingdom agree that fighting climate change is a global good. But when it comes to making personal sacrifices, their green enthusiasm fades.

Oxford is joining several other British cities planning or creating zones to curb tailpipe emissions. The zones are designed to improve air quality and public health, but have become part of the toolbox for policymakers trying to cut carbon emissions from transportation – the largest source of emissions in the U.K., which hosted the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. 

Last month London expanded its Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), which launched in 2019 and levies a charge of £12.50 a day to older petrol and diesel vehicles. The new zone covers a 240-square-mile area, making it the largest in Europe. The initial, smaller zone is credited with the removal of tens of thousands of mostly diesel cars from central London’s streets. 

“The most progressive cities are doing a lot more in tackling climate change,” says Lorraine Whitmarsh, who directs the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST). “That’s where most of the innovation is happening.”

But many Britons remain wary of the cost of going green at a time of rising global prices, including for the fossil fuels on which the world still depends. 

Mr. Che, a restaurant worker driving in the zone, isn’t ready to trade in his 15-year-old gasoline car. Next time, he’ll probably take the bus. “I’d prefer not to pay,” he says, adding that he supports the city’s green policies. “It’s a good direction.”

Focusing on delivery vehicles

Given its modest scale, Oxford’s zero-emission zone seems unlikely to arm-twist many car owners into going electric. Store owners and residents, mostly students living in Oxford colleges, will get exemptions; some of the zoned streets are already pedestrianized. 

But its planned rollout is shaking up the delivery industry that services the area: One local company has introduced a fleet of electric trucks, and a cycle courier service is expanding. Market traders are trying out two city-provided e-cargo bikes for daily deliveries. 

Tom Hayes, a city councilor for green transportation, says business owners need to see the benefits of replacing their polluting vehicles. He hopes the zone can be expanded in the future. “If we prove we can do it in this zone at the start, then we’re confident we can persuade businesses with larger economies of scale they can invest,” he says. 

Simon Montlake/The Christian Science Monitor
Climate activists hold a street protest in Oxford, England, to urge action at the U.N. Climate Change Conference held in Glasgow, Scotland, Nov. 5, 2021. Oxford plans to introduce the U.K.'s first zero-emission zone that would charge nonelectric cars a daily fee to drive inside it.

An emphasis on commercial vehicles makes sense, says Tim Schwanen, a geography professor at Oxford University who studies low-carbon transportation. As more British cities put limits on vehicle emissions, owners of national fleets will want to make sure their drivers aren’t shut out. Low-emission zones are “not hugely effective in getting people to switch from driving to cycling. But they do make a difference in terms of [commercial] vehicle purchase or leasing,” he says. 

Many cities across Europe have similar zones that ban or restrict polluting vehicles on some or all days. By contrast, only Santa Monica in California has experimented with a voluntary zero-emission zone for downtown deliveries. (New York City plans to introduce weekday congestion charges for private vehicles in midtown Manhattan but won’t apply emissions standards.) 

It “has to be fair and it has to be clean”

Still, bringing along the British public may be a challenge. Surveys show that most voters accept that their carbon-intensive lifestyles must change if the U.K. is to meet its net-zero emissions target of 2050. This translates into support for higher aviation taxes on frequent flyers, for example. But the cost of going green, and a sense that it isn’t fair for all, remains a counterweight. 

Take electric vehicles: A recent CAST survey found that 62% of respondents favored subsidies for EVs. But that fell to 34% if it would cost respondents more “personally” to drive a gas or diesel car. “If you just focus on the negatives, like saying this will cost you more, you get people saying they’re not in favor,” says Dr. Whitmarsh, who is also an environmental psychologist at the University of Bath. 

Mr. Hayes says he hears similar concerns from voters in Oxford on issues of equity and fairness. “Access to energy has to be fair and it has to be clean,” he says, adding that he also stresses the health benefits of cycling or walking over driving. 

Patrick Bligh, a retiree taking a stroll along a pedestrianized street, says he drives a hybrid (which isn’t exempt) and has no objections to a zero-emission zone, but he worries about the burden on low-income households that can’t afford an EV. “An awful lot of people who drive older cars will fall foul of the rule. That’s a big problem,” he says.

Across the street, bookstore owner Michael Keirs says he’s not convinced the zone will get people out of their cars as much as displace traffic onto other streets. He cycles to his store, but has book sellers who must heft heavy boxes there. “I think the policy is being rushed. I don’t think enough thought has gone into it,” he says. 

On a nearby zoned lane, David Turzik parked his diesel truck to make another delivery. He says he’d like to go green, but the current range of electric trucks would make it hard to cover his region. “I drive 120 miles a day,” he says. When he told his employer about Oxford’s new zone, he says the response was “to pay the fee.” 

More than just promoting EVs

The U.K.’s drive to replace internal combustion engine cars isn’t matched by any policy to reduce driving overall. That means it’s relying on rapid EV uptake to deliver the necessary emission cuts, says Greg Archer, U.K. director of Transport & Environment, a European research and advocacy nonprofit. 

He argues that a successful green-mobility adaptation needs to include limits on car use, such as emissions zones, given that millions of polluting cars will remain on the roads for decades. “We’ve left it too late to get enough EVs on the road by 2030 to meet our climate targets,” he says. “So, we’re going to need to start to reduce vehicle use.”

That isn’t how Prime Minister Boris Johnson sees the transition to electric cars. In a foreword to the U.K.’s net-zero strategy, he wrote: “For years, going green was inextricably bound up with a sense that we have to sacrifice the things we love. But this strategy shows how we can build back greener, without so much as a hair shirt in sight.”

In London, which has the country’s most extensive mass transit, Mayor Sadiq Khan has set a target of 80% of trips in the city to be taken by foot, cycle, or transit by 2041, up from 65% today. His administration has expanded cycle lanes that saw a spike in usage during pandemic lockdowns and upgraded 9,000 buses to meet ULEZ standards.  

Oxford has also added cleaner-burning buses, says Mr. Hayes. But he worries that as Oxford upgrades its fleet, older buses will end up on the streets of other cash-strapped cities, displacing – not ending – their emissions. “You can’t fix the climate crisis in the U.K. without [supporting] the councils,” he says.  

In London, owners of polluting vehicles can apply for compensation to scrap them; around 8,000 have done so thus far. But analysts say most cars went to other towns and cities. 

Still, the air quality on London’s streets has improved inside the ULEZ, which builds support for ambitious clean-transport policy, says Mr. Archer, who is hopeful that Oxford can do the same. “I think it sends a clear message to the local population that this is the transition that is necessary.”

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