Low emission zones, where the worst polluting vehicles are banned from city centres, were first introduced in Germany in 2008 and have since spread rapidly there and across Europe. But the Czech Republic has so far stood apart from the trend. That now looks like it is about to change with the capital city taking a lead.
Prague last week took a step towards becoming the first location in the Czech Republic to declare a low-emission zone on part of its territory. An agreement paving the way for such a zone to be declared was signed by the City Council member responsible for transport and environment policy, Jiří Nouza, and the Ministry of Environment.
The basic plan is that the oldest cars which have the worst pollution record in terms of emitting poisonous fumes from their exhausts and small soot type particles which cause severe health problems, such as lung cancer, will be banned.
Jiří Nouza explains: “According to the study we have at our disposal, the improvement in emissions could be in the range of a few percent, it talks about two-five percent with regard to emissions and around 10 percent with regard to particulate matter. At this moment there are around 930,000 vehicles registered in Prague and the number of cars which would not correspond to the required production date according to this move would amount to around 30,000-40,000 vehicles. Like I said, residents and other eligible persons would be protected with exemptions.”
But the city council has not given its final approval to the move. With local elections looming in October, the current council dominated by the centre-right TOP 09 party, has decided to leave it to the voters and the next council to make the final decision with the possibility of the zone coming into force from January 2016.
Councilman Nouza, who describes himself as a multi-modal man, sometimes using a bike, car, and public transport, said some critical comments have also already been made. “I noticed critical comments in the media from two sources in particular, maybe there were more. One was from the Civic Democrats and the other from the Freedom Party. It’s logical that before elections this could be used as a political problem or used as a political weapon. Even so we are not taking any steps to approve this at the moment. Under the current political conditions we are not prepared to take any non-reversible steps. We, and I personally, am prepared to defend this project if we succeed in the elections.”
The Czech capital, unlike the eastern city of Ostrava, does not suffer from poor air quality due to industrial emissions any more but exhaust fumes from cars and other vehicles are the main problem given the dramatic increase in the number of cars owned by Czechs over the last decade or two. In some places, the pollution does exceed the recognised limits which are regarded as safe. “It’s been the case that for a few years already we have not faced a smog situation, but the truth is that where road transport is concentrated, such as the Magistrale near I P Pavlova or Legerová and around Spořilov, the emission limits are exceeded. I don’t want to go into the exact percentages. We had a meeting last week in which the figures were presented and it’s the usual case that where transport is concentrated in towns and cities at a few key locations then the environmental conditions there are not the ideal to say the least. ”
The commission advising on the low emission zone has put forward two proposals for how wide the low emission zone should be one: a less ambitious restricted zone would cover the historic centre of Prague on both sides of the Vltava river and neighbouring areas. The wider one would extend much further on the eastern and northern sides of the city as far as the suburbs of Libeň and Stašnice. Councilman Nouza says he would personally prefer to draw a tighter boundary for the zone at first with no tightening of the rules following for at least two years but the choice is still open.
Vít Masare is a spokesman for the Auto Mat. He says the low emission zone is not so much significant in itself. “All in all we can say that it is not a big deal and does not cover that many vehicles. But it does bring some change and point me in the direction of someone who would oppose the improvement of health conditions in the city. Yes, you can find people like that, but the health issues are among the first things to consider.”
But, for Masare, the emissions proposal is another sign that things are changing at Prague City Hall and that consideration is being given to broad planning for issues like transport and environment even though many problematic issues from the long lasting political domination of the capital by the Civic Democrats or ODS are still having to be addressed.
He is hopeful that the trend will continue: “Up to two years ago the previous people responsible for urban transportation, especially the ODS party and its representatives, did not care about urban planning or urban development issues. And so any topics, like the improvement of some conditions in Prague, was totally out of the question. So we are basically starting a discussion about what can be done in Prague and how we can improve our city. It’s is only around one-and-a-half years since the new mayor [Tomáš] Hudeček came into office that these discussions could have started and the city started to think about strategic planning and transportation planning and stuff like that. And it is the representatives of the ODS and ČSSD [Social Democrats] who say it is a waste of money to plan.”
Masare says there are plenty of places where Prague can seek inspiration and areas where the city council can try and develop a more coherent transport policy. “If you want to talk about transportation as a sole topic, then what we are fighting for hard is that Prague would have some comprehensive plans, similar to plans that are obligatory for German cities, for French cities, and so on. Because at the moment Prague has no plans at all for what it wants to do. And these plans should deal with the fact that the inner city is dealing with an unbearable amount of individual automobile transportation for which we cannot simply inflate the city to get more space. So we have to think about other solutions. There should be a switch in the balance between road infrastructure, which has been dominant in Prague in the last 10 years, and instead, if the city wants to invest so much on transportation, then it should spend more on and promote means that are more sustainable in economic and environmental terms.
“That is public transportation, the improvement of the possibility to live in inner cities so that people would not have to make such long commuting trips. It is the investment into regional railroad systems. It is investment into the possibility to combine cycling in the inner city with other forms of transportation. It is the support of car sharing, car pooling measures. There are many tools and instruments that the city can use if it wants. So far it did not want to do so but we have experienced a remarkable change, especially in the last year, of which the low emission zone is a tiny, but not very ambitious, example of. But much more important things are taking place at the level of planning.”
Prague council boss Jiří Nouza says he reckons the number of cars registered in Prague has now levelled out but the problems remain. One of his targets is to try and put some order in the capital’s rules for parking cars. As he says, most of the people come into the centre to park their cars and do whatever they have to. So far, the rules are a hotch potch with every local council doing its own thing. But that and other initiatives will have to wait till after the elections in around three months’ time.