You’ve planned your trip, packed the car, caravan or motorhome, then you’ve heard about Low Emission Zones. The question is: Do these apply to you and how can you still travel where you want on holiday?
You may be surprised to learn that over 200 cities, across 10 European countries, have Low Emission Zones. The aim of the Low Emission Zone (LEZ) scheme is to cut air pollution and reduce pollution-related illnesses. Most Low Emission Zones apply to foreign-registered vehicles.
While some operate as general exclusions or pay as you enter, France, Germany and Austria require all vehicles to display a pre-purchased sticker which defines the engine classification and therefore determines your access into the Low Emission Zones.
LEZ Checker: What Euro Engine Classification is my Vehicle?
Restrictions generally take into account the Euro engine classification, identified by build year: Euro 6 engines are those built after September 2015; Euro 5 engines are built between 2011-2015; 2006-2010 engines fall into Euro 4; 2001-2005 are Euro 3 engines; Euro 2 engines were built between 1997-2000; and all vehicles built before 1 January 1997 are categorised as Euro 1. Petrol engines are usually more favourable than diesel and electric vehicles are the best rated. Some zones are focused on reducing Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs) in urban centres and take vehicle weights and size into account.
Image © Eurist e.V., CC license granted via Flickr.
LEZs around Europe: Understanding the Different Euro Emissions Standards
To add to the confusion, each LEZ has its own name and scheme; therefore there are different compliance procedures for each, sometimes even within the same country. Some cities have made it easy and simply restricted access to the city or made streets pedestrianised at certain times. Others have chosen to charge visitors to enter, hoping to promote the use of public transport, like the London congestion charge. The United Kingdom has congestion charge zones in London and Durham. If you wish to enter either city in a vehicle, you must pay to do so. From October 2017 there will be an additional Emissions Surcharge of £10 for vehicles below Euro 4 within the London congestion zone. You can pay your London congestion charge on the TFL website.
Some countries only implement LEZs when pollution is high. Hungary operates a smog alert system within Budapest. If a smog alert is in place, only vehicles with Euro 5 and 6 engines are allowed to enter the city. If your vehicle is Euro 4 or below you can use public transport for free on showing your vehicle documents. Outside of a smog alert much of the city has access restrictions depending on time of day and vehicle weights, most of which applies to HGVs and vehicles over 3.5 tons. Norway has an LEZ in Oslo which operates as an emergency scheme during high pollution. When the emergency scheme is in operation diesel engine vehicles below Euro 6 cannot drive in Oslo. There are already charges for vehicles to enter the city and a permanent Low Emission Zone is under consideration with the aim of Oslo being car-free by 2019.
Spain wishes to remove all diesel vehicles from Madrid by 2025. There is currently an emergency air pollution scheme operating with a pollution alert system in Madrid. If pollution is high, non-residents are banned from parking within the M-30 and speeds will be restricted or controlled on the M-30 and M-40. From December 2017 Barcelona will be operating an emergency Low Emission Zone, which will become permanent in 2020. In time stickers will be required and access by older vehicles will be restricted.
Other countries adopt Low Emission Zones to reduce pollution by restricting old vehicles from entering urban centres. The Portuguese Zona de Emissões Reduzidas (ZER) has restricted access of older vehicles to central Lisbon. The city has been divided into two zones; Zone 1 is the centre and Zone 2 is further out. Your vehicle must be Euro 3 or above for Zone 1 and you must be able to prove this with a V5 document. For Zone 2 your vehicle must be a Euro 2 or above. No sticker is required, but if you cannot prove your engine classification or are found in the wrong zone there is an on-the-spot fine.
There is no national scheme in Italy, but there are 100 locally organised Low Emission Zones across the country. In Italy the Low Emission Zones should not be confused with the Zona a Traffico Limitato (ZLT), zones of limited traffic which restricts traffic in 200 cities, often to residents only. The ZLT zones are indicated by signs and enforced by cameras. Low Emission Zones vary and can cover large areas, such as the Milan ‘Paw Print’ LEZ. This covers Milan up to Como, Varese and Lecco and everything in between. The Paw Print LEZ runs from 15 October to 15 April and applies to all diesel vehicles below Euro 3 and all petrol vehicles below Euro 1, which are restricted between 7.30am-7.30pm. In an emergency situation, this can be increased to a ban on all vehicles. In contrast, the town of Lucca permanently bans all Euro 1 vehicles. Although the restrictions vary between cities, there are no fees to pay or permits to obtain. Unless you have a Euro 5 or Euro 6 engine, avoid the centres and use public transport to get in, you’ll probably find this also improves your stress levels! However, if you find yourself in the wrong zone, fines vary from €75-€450.
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Currently Denmark, Finland, and Sweden have only applied Low Emission Zones to HGV vehicles. Romania has restricted vehicles above 5 tons in Bucharest. The Netherlands has applied their Low Emission Zones, called Milieuzones, to vehicles above 3.5 tons.
However, other countries have decided to adopt a national system and require permits for entry to the zones. Permit systems operate in Germany, France and Austria; there are further details about these countries below. Once your vehicle has a permit, you will know exactly where you can travel, and this permit should also apply to any other Low Emission Zones in that country.
Navigating the LEZs: Travel Europe LEZ Compliant
It is possible to simply avoid the areas in the Low Emission Zones, and if you have a vehicle built before 1997 this will be your only choice. However, your satnav may have other ideas and decide to take you through the urban centre and therefore into the Low Emission Zone. Currently there is no ‘Emission Zone’ avoidance within the satnav options, so navigators will have to be on the ball when they get close to any Low Emission Zone if they wish to avoid it. This should be possible as the zones are generally in the historic urban centres, where it is always preferable to enter on public transport. However, this may also be the location of your hotel or campsite, so always check before you book if the area has any restrictions.
Preparation, Planning and Permits
This is not the end of the story, but the beginning. From 2018 Belgium will begin introducing Low Emission Zones in Brussels, Antwerp, Gent (Ghent) and Mechelen; the details are yet to be confirmed. The Czech Republic is considering a Low Emission Zone in Prague from 2019. Details of new zones and schemes are listed on the Urban Access Regulations website and it is best to check this before you travel, especially if you intend to travel in an older vehicle.
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Road trip tourists are going to have to become more organised, and their journeys more planned. Not too difficult for a one-off trip, much harder for anyone on a long-term European tour. Travelling with an older vehicle needs serious consideration; that dream tour around Europe in a classic VW camper may be a compromise too far as the convenience of being able to park in any city is outweighed by the fact you are no longer allowed in! Classic vehicles do have exemptions in some cities, so check the small print carefully to see if you are allowed. If you are planning to full-time around Europe, then consider a motorhome with a Euro 5 engine or above. If this is not possible, then research public transport for anything you wish to visit within an LEZ. If you plan to go on an extended motorhome trip around Europe, but haven’t managed it yet, you may even want to consider bringing your trip forward; it will be easier now than in the future. But don’t panic! There are tens of thousands of places to visit off the beaten track and motorhomes are uniquely equipped to do this, so leave the big cities behind and get out there and explore the beautiful countryside of Europe.
Be prepared before you depart by applying for permits, which usually come in the form of a sticker. Permits last for the life of the vehicle, as long as they remain legible. If you plan to own your motorhome for a few years it’s a worthwhile exercise to apply even if you have no intention of visiting a country, as it gives you the freedom to change your mind on a whim. Always use the official website, as numerous other agents have hefty charges. You will need a copy of your V5 document to provide evidence of your vehicle’s Euro rating. Once your sticker has arrived make sure you apply it in the right place.
Below are details on how to apply for permits for Germany, France and Austria.
Umweltzone: Low Emission Zones in Germany
The Umweltzone, translated as environment zones, were initially set up in 2008 in just a few German cities, but there are now over 70 zones across the country. Set up to deal with vehicle pollution within urban areas, the zones operate using the traffic light system of green, yellow and red. The start of the Umweltzone is clearly marked, as well as the sticker required to travel within it. A sticker of the appropriate colour must be displayed in the windscreen before entering the Umweltzone. The fine for being in the wrong zone is €80.
There are four classifications of Umweltzone sticker. The Group 4 green sticker is for Euro 4, 5, and 6 diesel engines and petrol engines with a 3-way catalytic converter. A Euro 3 diesel engine can be classified as green if it has a particulate filter. The Group 3 yellow sticker is for Euro 3 diesel engines or Euro 2 diesel engines that have a particulate filter. The Group 2 red sticker is for Euro 2 diesel engines or Euro 1 diesel engines with a particulate filter. Group 1 is unclassified and no sticker will be awarded for diesel engines of Euro 1 or older or petrol vehicles without a 3-way catalytic converter.
Vehicles with green stickers are the least restricted and can travel mostly unhindered. Drivers with yellow and red stickers will need to pay attention to signs around the zones and will increasingly be excluded from zones. Unclassified vehicles will have to avoid the zones altogether. A database showing each Umweltzone classification is available from the Umweltbundesamt, Germany’s Environmental Agency. The Bord Atlas Stellplatze guide for Germany includes a symbol which highlights any motorhome stopover which lies within an Umweltzone. The guide identifies 57 Aires within green zones and 1 within a yellow zone.
Applying for your sticker is fairly simple and cheap. You will need a credit/debit card and a copy of the page of your V5 logbook detailing your vehicle age, registration number and engine type. This copy can be a scan or photograph in .pdf or .jpeg format. Once you have saved this, go to the Berlin Umweltzone Portal and follow the instructions. Once the form is complete you will be directed to a payment page and charged €6. Once your application is complete you will receive an email confirmation. The sticker should take 1-2 weeks to arrive. Do not use any other website to apply for your sticker as it could be an ‘agent’ charging considerably more. Alternatively, the sticker can be purchased in Germany at a DEKRA (MOT station), but they will need to see your V5 logbook to process it. For further information visit the German Environmental Agency website.
If you are planning to travel to Germany in winter, ensure your tyres conform to the new winter tyre regulations imposed on January 1, 2018.
CRIT’Air: Low Emission Zones in France
From 2017 France is adopting a scheme called CRIT’Air. Initially in Paris, Grenoble and Lyon, it is due to expand to other cities in the future. The idea behind the scheme is to reduce the number of old vehicles being driven at peak times or during high pollution. Therefore, there are currently two different types of zone: Zones à circulation restreinte (ZCR), which are permanent, and Zones de protection de l’air (ZPA), which are pollution dependant. Paris has a ZCR zone banning all vehicles below a Euro 4 driving within the Périphérique between 8am-8pm Monday-Friday. Lyon operates a ZPA zone, which only comes into effect if air pollution is high. From July 2017 it became mandatory for all vehicles to display a CRIT’Air sticker before they enter a CRIT’Air zone. Should you find yourself inadvertently in a CRIT’Air zone without the appropriate sticker, the fine is €68. HGV fines are higher.
The CRIT’Air system has six different classes. Classes 1-5 deal with petrol or diesel vehicles of different ages and there is an E sticker for electric and hydrogen vehicles. The certificate is valid for the life of the vehicle as long as it remains legible. Barring electric and hydrogen vehicles, Class 1 is deemed the least polluting and Class 5 the most polluting. For diesel vehicles, the classification operates on Euro engine classification, identified by build year: Euro 5 and 6 engines should get a Class 2 sticker; Euro 4 and should get a Class 3 sticker; Euro 3 vehicles should get a Class 4; and Euro 2 vehicles fall into Class 5. The classifications are different for petrol vehicles where each class gets a sticker one class higher than the relevant diesel class. All vehicles built before 1 January 1997, whether petrol or diesel, are marked as Euro 1. These are unclassified, do not get a sticker and cannot travel within the zones when they are active.
Applying for your sticker is fairly simple and cheap. You will need a credit/debit card and a copy of the page of your V5 logbook detailing your vehicle age, registration number and engine type. This copy can be a scan or photograph in .pdf or .jpeg format no bigger than 400kb. Once you have saved this, go to the CRIT'Air website and follow the instructions. Once the form is complete you will be directed to a payment page and charged €4.80. Once your application is complete you will receive an email confirmation. Then it is simply a waiting game, but be aware the sticker can take between 1-6 weeks to arrive. Do not use any other website to apply for your sticker as it could be an ‘agent’ charging considerably more.
Once you have your sticker it will be fairly simple to work out if you can travel within the ZCR zones. However, the ZPA zones operate differently. When pollution is high different emissions stickers will be allowed to travel at different times. As a tourist, it is going to be very difficult to know in advance which zones are suffering from high pollution. Hopefully there will be some guidance in the form of permanent and electronic signage when you arrive, we will let you know how we get on!
Low Emission Zones in Austria
Austria has several different Low Emission Zones. Some, such as Salzburg, ban entrance at certain times. Others, such as the A12 Tirol motorway, just restrict speed. The other Low Emission Zones are currently only affecting HGVs over 7.5 tons, but this will change. Although many zones do not affect domestic vehicles, all vehicles are required to have a colour-coded sticker in their windscreen depicting their vehicle’s emissions. These can be purchased in Austria from certain garages for €2.50. Alternatively, the sticker can be purchased in advance for more than €20 by sending a copy of your V5 document by email to firstname.lastname@example.org. An invoice will be sent with your sticker to be paid by bank transfer.
Have you had any experience with Low Emission Zones in Europe or have a question? Write it in the comments below!
Written by Meli
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