The European jungle of environmental areas
The number of environmental areas within Europe has grown continuously over recent years, and with it restrictions on mobility in the form of toll and tag systems, the growing variety of which resembles the endless artistic interpretations of a baguenaudier puzzle. This being the case, getting around in certain European cities and regions in a motorised vehicle can be more a matter of mathematics than simply driving.
In this respect, the European Union has demonstrated a great inability to enforce a standardised and comprehensible traffic system and has turned a blind eye to the sometimes discriminatory, often ineffective and always incomprehensible systems adopted by certain towns, cities, geographic regions and even countries that are extremely detrimental to the mobility of their people.
Since the introduction of Directive 2008/50/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe we have seen an increase in the number of legal restrictions imposed on mobility within various European countries, geographic regions and cities based on their own specific criteria and through schemes such as tag systems and online registration, the specific conditions of which tend to be complex and vary significantly. Failure to adhere to these regulations often leads to heavy sanctions, meaning that motor tourists would be well advised to find out about the necessary requirements when planning their trip.
Many European countries, for example, have introduced environmental areas based on criteria for which they are solely responsible, with different regulations and with compliance recognition systems (notably involving the use of tags) that vary in terms of both form and substance, depending on the resourcefulness of the political powers that create them. In the case of those countries that have introduced a sticker system, the stickers themselves can be issued in different colours, but each country has its own sticker, meaning that if you wish to visit several countries, you’d better make sure there is plenty of space on your windscreen! For those that require drivers to register online, such as Belgium, there isn’t necessarily a single site where you can register for all cities that have imposed environmental areas, meaning that you will have to repeat the same procedure, or at least a similar one, on various websites.
Sound a bit complicated? Bear in mind that, in reality, it is even more complex in many countries since these various stickers and registrations can entitle the holder to different types of mobility depending on current pollution levels, or the time of day at which they are travelling, for example.
This sort of complexity at European level makes it impossible to obtain a clear overview of the French, German, Belgian and other systems and it can be a real headache for tourists or occasional visitors trying to understand which tag or registration they need to use where, when and how, for what sort of current pollution levels and which type of vehicle, since there are, of course, differences between one category and another (car, bus, motorhome or lorry). To make matters even more complicated, many of the restrictions imposed environmental areas are not fixed or permanent but rather temporary and can sometimes change.
Whilst Europe is unable to outline a series of common standards in this respect, there is room for computer engineers to develop smartphone apps and other media designed to provide real-time information on conditions across this European jungle. The International Motoring Federation, of which the ACL is a member, is currently examining the advantages and disadvantages of the various systems with a view to presenting European institutions with a series of standards that both respect the laws in place and are respectful of road-users. This is an important exercise and one that needs to be completed before other countries get too creative with their own systems.