5 February 2020
Social acceptability
Soft mobility
Low emission zone & congestion charge
Reports and case studies

Social Acceptability of Low Emission Zones

Upon exploring the notion of social acceptability, this qualitative study produced by GUAPO at the request of its Member Cities compares the accompanying measures of LEZs, mainly in Europe, with recommendations for local actors.

An english version of the report will be available soon on the website. 

Couverture rapport ZFE

Low Emission Zones (LEZs), have become a major tool of urban air pollution mitigation measures over the last two decades. They are a flagship policy for the local governments that endeavour to tackle the challenge of air pollution. Their number has grown rapidly:  since the first European LEZ was introduced in Sweden in 1996, more than 230 have been created in Europe.


However, LEZ are sometimes criticized by the public. In order to facilitate their implementation, and thereby improve their effectiveness, this study aims to identify the factors that will enhance or hinder the social acceptability of LEZs.


Situations vary widely from a LEZ to another, with various perimeters and administrative boundaries.  Existing LEZs range from small downtown areas (e.g. 2km2 for the LEZ in Ilsfeld, Germany), to much larger areas stretching over major agglomerations (e.g. 1,500km2 for the Greater London LEZ). (ADEME 2019). The definition of the LEZ perimeter is a central issue as most European cities are characterized by notable differences between their downtown neighbourhoods and their outskirts. City centres usually benefit from higher average household income, wider job markets and denser transportation networks. The geographical coverage of LEZs will thus have an effect not only of the environmental and health outcomes of the policy, but also on its social impacts – and thereby on the social acceptability of the policy itself.


Acceptability is the result of a complex and dynamic process, based on four key components (Martinez, 2019):


  1. Sense of control:


The value of individual autonomy being central in our society, traffic restrictions measures can be perceived as an infringement of individual freedoms. In order to counter this feeling of disempowerment and to restore a sense of intervention and control among individuals, it is crucial to provide for consultation and participation mechanisms.


  1. Social influence:


Social norms, i.e. the set of value judgements about individuals, groups or practices, play an important role in building social acceptability. The communication strategy deployed around a LEZ should therefore focus on promoting new mobility practices as socially desirable. This will improve the potential for dissemination and adaptation of these new practices by the population.  


  1. Perceived usefulness:


The degree of perceived usefulness of the LEZ is also central to the acceptability process. The communication strategy around the LEZ must appear to be coherent and consistent. It should not give the impression that there is an imbalance between the problem and the solutions put forward, or that the link between the two is too distant. Thus it is usually more effective to focus on the local and individual effects of a LEZ (e.g. health impacts), rather than on the global and collective effects (e.g. climate change mitigation).


  1. Sense of fairness:


The distribution of the efforts required and the benefits allowed by the implementation of a LEZ must be perceived as fair. If some stakeholders consider that they have to make substantial efforts while others are exempted (e.g. foreign vehicles), then the acceptability of the scheme decreases. Similarly, if the health outcomes are perceived as primarily benefiting privileged groups (e.g. city centre residents), the social acceptability of the scheme also decreases. 



To ensure that the LEZ is widely accepted by the population, several factors must be taken into account: the area covered by the LEZ, the type of vehicles affected, potential exemptions and methods of enforcement. It is necessary to make sure that efforts and benefits are fairly distributed among the population.


Several guidelines for improving the acceptability of LEZs will therefore be highlighted in this report:


  1. To be effective, a LEZ must be combined with an ambitious mobility plan, such as the "Bike Plan" set up by the Paris City Council. Defining a mobility plan will encourage a modal shift away from polluting vehicles to shared and soft mobility.


  1. A well-planned communication strategy is key to building the social acceptability of a LEZ. Demonstrating the benefits of LEZs, both before and after their implementation, is crucial.  Information on the practicalities (vehicles concerned, area and timeframe of restrictions...) and the support schemes (one-stop-shop) must be made accessible and understandable to all.


  1. Provide for flexibility in the implementation of the LEZ, through derogations and accompanying measures. If, for instance, a vehicle is prohibited from driving in the LEZ, its owner may encounter financial difficulties and have to restrict its movements. Therefore, substantiated derogations and financial assistance for vehicle conversion are key. Local characteristics should be taken into account when designing these flexibility measures.


  1. Pay particular attention to deprived populations, who may experience multiple inequalities (inequalities in resources, contribution to pollution, and exposure to pollution, etc.) and implement tailored policies to avoid a disproportionate cost of the LEZ for these populations.


  1. Provide for a progressive implementation of the LEZ, in particular with regards to geographical scope, types of vehicles covered by the ban, and enforcement of sanctions.


  1. Design an efficient enforcement system with clear sanctions and limited exceptions.


  1. Propose tailored recommendations depending on the vehicle type (heavy goods vehicles, light duty vehicles, passenger vehicles, motorised two-wheelers, etc.) and its use (private individuals, taxis and private-hire vehicles, craftsmen, deliveries, etc.).


In the longer term, the study also highlights two points for reflection:


  • Support the emergence of the social economy in the new mobility (MaaS - Mobility as a Service), too often associated with a digital platform. These are still too few, and too often targeted at inner-city populations.


  • Anticipate the scaling up of LEZs, which are set to increase drastically in the coming decades. The acceptability issues that will then arise for LEZs will be of a completely different magnitude, since in the long run, it is the banning of diesel vehicles, or perhaps even the banning of all internal combustion engine vehicles (zero emission zones) that is envisioned.