Could low emission zones be the first step towards removing vehicles from our city centres? - Alastair Dalton

Scotland’s city centres used to be pretty unpleasant places, with pedestrians dodging vehicles as they crossed fume-filled streets to get to the shops.

The stench of diesel smoke was an accepted part of getting around, from buses belching black clouds as they pulled away from bus stops to the fug of train engine exhausts in stations.

Nowadays, while the overt signs of such pollution are much reduced, the threat to health remains insidious, from invisible, but deadly nitrogen oxide and microscopic particulates.

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These are especially dangerous to children, elderly people and those with heart and lung conditions.

Alastair Dalton said the LEZs provided an opportunity to consider the future of vehicles in city centres. Picture: John Devlin

However, a significant next move towards combating the menace is launched today with the last two of four public consultations getting underway into establishing low emission zones (LEZ) in the centres of Scotland’s largest cities: Glasgow, Edinburgh Aberdeen and Dundee.

It will mean only vehicles with the cleanest engines being permitted in the LEZs.

Most petrol cars and many diesels already comply, but as many as half of vans could fall foul.

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However, while the LEZs are due to start operating next spring, there will be a two-year grace period to give drivers the chance to replace their vehicles before fines for non-compliance are introduced.

Ridding the biggest polluters should make a significant difference, we’re told, with nitrogen oxide emissions from traffic being more than halved.

That will surely be a popular policy that can command wide-ranging support.

The advent of LEZs could also be the opportunity to finally have a serious debate about the whole issue of vehicles in city centres, areas which should be first and foremost for people to move around in – but not in mobile metal boxes.

Past attempts at extra tolls for driving, such as Edinburgh’s congestion charge plans nearly two decades ago, were hugely unpopular.

But if we can unite around the need to reduce health-threatening pollution from vehicles in the centre of our cities, it could be the first step towards talking about whether most cars should be there anyway.

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