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London’s ULEZ could be 'generation-defining', but only with the right technology

As London’s ULEZ goes live, Vincent Lemage, Genetec, explores how it will be enforced and how to ensure the initiative looks beyond fines and actually contributes to making the city’s air cleaner.


Since 2008, London, like other major European cities, has enforced a low emissions zone in an effort to overcome its battle with pollution.


However, what makes London stand out now is that it is introducing the world’s first ultra-low emissions zone (ULEZ) – the first and most likely not the last of its kind.


Most low emissions zones in Europe impose restrictions on heavy-emitting vehicles such as buses, coaches and heavy-duty goods vehicles, whereas London’s ULEZ will see a larger number of personal vehicles affected. As such, a greater amount of surveillance is required and smarter technologies must be deployed.


It is easy to see why in 2013, then-Mayor of London Boris Johnson announced plans to introduce the ULEZ and why current Mayor, Sadiq Khan, saw the plan through.


London has one of the worst levels of air pollution in the whole of Europe. According to research from Kings College London, air pollution is responsible for the deaths of approximately 9,500 people in the capital. A further study from the Mayor’s office found that over 800 London educational institutions see pupils exposed to levels of nitrogen dioxide that breach the European Union’s legal limits.


On March 18, London breached cumulative European and UK air quality limit values for the year – though it must be noted that this is an improvement on 2018 (where the limit was broken in under 30 days) and 2015 (where the limit was broken by January 4).


Evidently, London is on its way towards improving air standards, but much more work must be done quickly and the ULEZ is being employed in an effort to do just that.




However, it is one thing to theoretically impose a regulation – pollution levels are easily monitored – but it is the enforcement that can be the tricky part.


Currently, the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) processes roughly 12 million automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) images per day. This is largely in the form of speed cameras and the Congestion Charge zones – both of which are easy to implement. The first simply gauges a vehicle’s speed; the second identifies a vehicle has entered the zone and bills its owner accordingly.


ULEZ enforcement is much more complicated than speeding cameras or the Congestion Charge implementation.


ULEZ enforcement is much more complicated because it is not so arbitrarily done. The complications arise because the ANPR system will check the number plate (VRM) against a centralised database of vehicles and issue a penalty charge notice (PCN) to those which are deemed to be in excess of pollution limits.


In order to implement this rule, MOPAC anticipates a near doubling of the ANPR images – from 12 million to 21 million per day. As a knock-on effect, Transport for London (TfL) will have to install 672 additional cameras around the city’s capital.


Again, this is easier said than done, as a variety of factors – both malicious and environmental – come into play. Firstly, it is cheap and easy for car-owners to set their licence plates up to avoid cameras. Products which obfuscate the VRM from the view of infrared cameras are illegal, but they are difficult for the naked eye to notice and as such are unlikely to be noticed by police officers.


It is cheap and easy for car-owners to set their licence plates up to avoid cameras.


Equally, environmental factors like dirt, dust, snow and debris can partially obstruct plate characters and cause partial reads to occur.


With this in mind, the city must make sure that it has a system in place that adequately combats those issues. The best solution is a highly sophisticated automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) system that automates licence plate reading and identification in order for law enforcement to locate vehicles of interest and efficiently automate that VRM check.


This kind of ANPR system can capture and cross-reference licence plate reads and matches alongside video footage, contextual images and GPS information.


One key feature of this kind of system is its ability to negate the effects of environmental factors which can partially obstruct licence plate characters, and point out similarly shaped letters and numbers, like “2” and “Z” or, “8”, “B”, and “0”, which can also reduce the accuracy level of reads.


Such a system would compare reads not only to exact matches in hotlists, but also to potential or probable matches. This provides an added layer of reliability in reads by comparing a licence plate read containing one or more errors against a hotlist. It then sends an alert on any potential matches and provides operators with critical information that may otherwise go unnoticed.


While this system will not be able to stop people from fitting licence plate-blocking hardware to their vehicles, it will be able to alert operators if it is unable to get full reads and inform investigations.


Deeper insights


It is also important for an ANPR to provide additional feedback that can then inform other areas of traffic enforcement. Advanced analytics will be able to highlight particular areas of activity. Maybe there are a handful of cameras which pick up more offending vehicles than any others or at particular times.


With advanced analytics, the enforcement of ULEZ can go further than just issuing fines and actually feed into the core idea behind the initiative – to make London’s air cleaner.


From there, investigations can take place into why these hotspots exist and what can be done. Without analytics to provide this illuminating data, it would be impossible to gain this kind of insight.


In this way, the enforcement of ULEZ can go further than just issuing fines and actually feed into the core idea behind the initiative – to make London’s air cleaner.


The world’s first ULEZ is a much-needed programme for ensuring environmental standards, but from our experience with other LEZ projects, enforcement must be efficient and actually positively contribute towards the reductions in emissions.


Without appropriate steps, ULEZ will likely just become another expense of living in and around London rather than an active step towards a cleaner capital.


London’s ULEZ has the potential to become a shining example for how major urban centres deal with this generation-defining issue, but only by proactively utilising technology that can implement the new law, along with intelligent analytics, can the authorities influence the habits of drivers in the city and, ultimately, save the planet.


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