The French ZFE/ZCR and ZPA/ZPAd environmental zones
Since 2016, more and more different types of environmental zones have been established in France. These LEZ (LEZ = Low Emission Zone) zones can be roughly divided into permanent and temporary zones. This means either a permanent or a temporary traffic restriction.
Until 2019, zones in which permanent traffic restrictions apply are generally called ZCR zones (Zones à Circulation Restreinte). In these zones, the rules will also be tightened in most cases over the coming years, so that further traffic restrictions will be imposed.
From 2020, more and more ZCR zones will be renamed ZFE zones (Zone à Faibles Émissions), which corresponds to the English term “LEZ Low Emission Zone”, whose areas will be expanded and further traffic restrictions will be imposed.
Zones in which restrictions only apply temporarily have been called ZPA zones (Zones de Protection de l’Air) since 2017. In these zones, in certain weather conditions – when pollutants exceed specified limit values – traffic restrictions are enforced at so-called “air pollution peaks”. The rules of a ZPA zone will be also be tightened over the coming years, so that further traffic restrictions will be imposed.
If weather-dependent ZPA zones are established not only in cities or metropolitan regions but on the area of the entire French department, then a ZPA zone is called ZPAd Zone, where “d” stands for department.
The ZFE/ZCR environmental zones
The ZFE zones (Zone à Faibles Émissions), which were still called ZCR zones from 2016 to the end of 2019, are permanent zones that can be identified by traffic signs.
Cities and municipalities are responsible for the introduction of ZFE/ZCRs as it is regulated by the national Décret ZCR 2016-847 of June 28, 2016. After a 6-month period of hearings, which allows affected citizens to voice their concerns and take part in the decision-making process, the zone becomes binding.
A Crit’Air badge, allocated in 6 categories, is required in order to drive in the ZFE/ZCR environmental zones defined by cities or municipalities in France.
The respective city or municipality determines the Crit’Air categories allowed to enter the zone at certain days and times. For that purpose, a sign will be installed under the usual ZCR label. This additional sign will indicate the days and hours on which driving with a certain Crit’Air vignette is allowed.
In the mid and long term, more and more badge categories are being excluded from entering the environmental zones, so that in a few years' time only categories E and 1 will be able to enter.
In a ZFE/ZCR zone, vignette colours are permanently excluded and do not depend on the prevailing weather conditions. However, the ZFE/ZCR and ZPA zones may overlap. If driving bans are then imposed within the ZPA zone due to weather conditions, these will also apply to the ZCR zone. Then the rules of the ZPA are also transferred to the ZFE/ZCR zone.
However, if the ZFE/ZCR zone is not within a ZPA zone, this case cannot occur and the rules remain constant.
The ZPA air protection zones
The ZPA zones („zones de protection de l’air“) are not permanent; they are activated in case of high air pollution and bad weather only. They can cover the territories of whole metropolitan areas or refer to a specific geographical zone. Therefore, the limits of each environmental zone are precisely defined in advance.
These zones are only valid in case of an air pollution peak. This means that traffic restrictions will only be valid when established limits for particulate matter and nitrogen oxides are exceeded during several days. Then, different categories of the Crit’Air badge can be excluded from traffic in order to limit the emission of the named pollutants. Recommendations have been developed in advance regarding the colours that will be excluded in case of an air pollution peak. However, the correct restrictions will always be decided by the department’s prefect in the concrete event of high air pollution.
Driving bans in a ZPA do not become effective on the same day as they are announced. They are usually announced during the afternoon or evening and for the next day. The driving bans then apply to the entire ZPA. If a ZCR zone is located within a ZPA zone, rules will be overwritten during an air pollution peak. Only when the pollution peak ended, usual permanent traffic restrictions for badge categories apply again.
The ZPAd regional air protection zones
The ZPAd („zone de protection de l’air départementale – ZPAd“) are environmental zones that apply to a whole department instead of smaller geographical areas. It is not possible to define in advance in which local areas within the ZPAd traffic restrictions will occur due to an air pollution peak. The precise area of application of the restrictions, as well as the concrete measures set, must be specified on a case-by-case basis by an additional order. In theory, a whole department could be affected by a specific measure, even though, this is relatively unlikely. Anyway, the prefect is responsible for imposing driving bans if necessary (e.g. on one or more communities, highways or the whole department). Crit'Air vignettes, which must be excluded from traffic, are also decided in these cases.
The limits of ZFE/ZCR zones and ZPA zones can be complex
In general, it is important to know that there can always be cases where a city’s ZFE/ZCR zone is established in the city’s centre and that the rest of the city remains free from restrictions. In the surrounding area outside the city there is again a ZPA zone, which is valid for the suburbs and municipalities surrounding the city.
In this case, drivers should consider to what extent they find themselves inside which zone or not, and if yes, which norms are valid in each case. This is particularly important because there are no signs outside de ZFE/ZCR zone indicating the ZPA zone. The daily status of each zone is furthermore not accessible to foreigners through the press or the radio.
In such cases, drivers can only resort to the Green-Zones app, which shows the current state of a ZPA or ZFE/ZCR zone, that is, which Crit’Air vignette categories (with which plate number) are allowed to access and to drive through the zone in question and during which times of the day.