Study: environmental zones make residents healthier but less satisfied

picture alliance / Geisler-Fotopress | Christoph Hardt / Geisler-Fotopres

Environmental zones in urban traffic effectively reduce the health burden of pollutants in the affected areas.

However, after the establishment of an environmental zone, residents’ life satisfaction decreases, as does that of neighboring areas. This is the result of a study by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW).

Particularly dissatisfied are young people and those who rely on their cars.

Environmental zones for urban car traffic have a positive effect on the air quality and health of local residents, but initially reduce their satisfaction with life. It is the central result of a study by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) and the RFF-CMCC research institute in Milan.

“Environmental zones and associated driving bans demonstrably reduce traffic pollution,” writes DIW economist Nicole Wägner. “However, the zones are not only meeting with approval. Only about four or five years after the introduction, local residents seemed to have become aware of it. “

Economists see the reasons for the decline in satisfaction with the living conditions of residents. The restriction of their mobility and the cost of switching to a low-emission car undermine the acceptance of environmental zones. According to RFF-CMCC economist Luis Sarmiento, reduced satisfaction is more pronounced among people under the age of 65 and diesel drivers than among the elderly. “Young people have a greater need for mobility and have to drive more often to get to work. In environmental zones, stricter standards apply to diesel vehicles than petrol engines ”.

Measurable health benefits

Local residents don’t seem to push these limits with health benefits. The introduction of environmental zones reduces the risk of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases for the people who live there. The current DIW study also shows that the likelihood of developing high blood pressure decreases.

DIW Berlin

Another finding is that environmental zones improve overall air quality, although ozone levels are also increasing. Ozone is not emitted directly by vehicles, but is formed only when exposed to sunlight through the reactions between polluting precursors. For example, the concentration of ozone can increase when nitric oxide emissions decrease. This appears to be the case with environmental zones. In the overall assessment of air quality, however, the effects of decreasing concentrations of particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide predominate.

DIW Berlin

The team of economists concludes that environmental zones are effective in countering air pollution and disease risks. However, this should be communicated more clearly in order to increase acceptance. “In addition to increased awareness campaigns on health benefits, financial compensation mechanisms such as discounts for the purchase of clean vehicles would likely come into effect in the event of difficulties,” says economist DIW Aleksandar Zaklan. Public transport vouchers or an expansion of local public transport could also make environmental zones more attractive.

Low-emission zones are a reaction to poor air quality in congested areas. The first environmental zones were introduced in Sweden in 1996. Cities in other countries followed suit in the 2000s. Uniform standards for environmental zones were established in Germany and then, since 2008, a relatively large number have been implemented of zones.

Effects for adjacent areas

To assess the effects of environmental zones on adjacent areas, the team looked at a radius of 25 kilometers. The results show significant increases in ozone levels also in adjacent areas. In the case of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, however, the environmental zones do not involve any significant reduction. Overall, the DIW team found on average no disadvantage of environmental zones on air quality in adjacent areas. However, air quality in areas outside environmental zones can deteriorate in the summer due to rising ozone levels.

The negative effect on general life satisfaction also affects people living outside but close to environmental zones. Their level of satisfaction with life falls similarly to that of residents living near environmental zones. People outside environmental zones can also be affected by traffic restrictions, for example if they want to drive in the adjacent city center with an environmental zone or if there is a traffic shift to neighboring areas. On the contrary, it is not possible to determine the influence of the zones on the health of these people.

These findings therefore suggest that people living near environmental zones bear the costs of reduced mobility without reaping the health benefits of improved air quality.

Note on methodology: The study is based on analyzes and data from the socio-economic group of DIW Berlin (SOEP) and the Federal Environment Agency. You can find the study here

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