Viral videos and images have been circulating the internet showing cameras splayed on the pavement and even protestors actively damaging the equipment as one of the U.K.'s most controversial motoring laws plans to expand its reach to an additional 5 million residents. When it does, it'll become one of the world's largest financially-motivated efforts to combat vehicle emissions.
For those not familiar with ULEZ cameras, here's a crash course. Essentially, London has a 147 square-mile (380 square-kilometer) zone designated for ultra-low emissions. The goal is to reduce air pollution by charging drivers a fee—similar to a congestion charge—if their vehicle drives within the boundaries and is not designated as being compliant with strict pollution regulations.
Here's where things get a bit complicated: There are no tollbooths or people to collect money from drivers entering or exiting the zone. Instead, Transport for London (TFL) has installed hundreds of CCTV cameras with Automatic Number Plate Recognition. These cameras read the license plates of vehicles traveling through the ULEZ and compare them against the car or truck that it is registered to in order to determine if the vehicle in question is compliant with the emissions limits of the zone. If it isn't, the driver is assessed a $15.88 (12.50 gbp) fee each day they drive. Should they fail to pay it, they will be charged a $228.71 (180 gbp) fine.
What's more, there is no legal immunity for those who happen to live or work in these designated areas. Drivers who reside within the ULEZ are required to pay up just like anyone else, meaning that even a short commute to the grocery store would result in a charge. And to make matters worse, ULEZ rules operate 24 hours per day, seven days per week (with the exception of Christmas).
Recently, anti-ULEZ activists have banded together to form a covert group called Blade Runners who have vowed to "take down every single [ULEZ camera] no matter what."
These aren't just kids, either. One activist is a father in his mid-forties, according to the Daily Mail. He claims to have stolen more than 30 ULEZ cameras himself and that the actual number of cameras stolen or damaged by the group is way higher than Transport for London has reported. In total, the activist claims that "at least a couple of hundred" cameras—each of which costs around $8,900 (7,000 gbp)—have been disabled by the group.
"There are 24 hours in a day. We either fight it or accept it. We do whatever we can," said the activist when speaking to the Daily Mail. "What we will achieve by our actions is the removal of the infrastructure and waking up the sleeping masses to what is really going on."
In some cases, protestors will unbolt the camera from light posts using a cordless impact wrench. Other times, they will cut the wires feeding power and data to the cameras, rendering them completely inoperable. In less extreme instances, activists simply choose to blind the cameras by placing a bag over them.
The London Metropolitan Police received 96 allegations of damage to ULEZ cameras by TFL (which says it reports every incident involving stolen or damaged ULEZ cameras to the police) in May of this year. No recent numerical total has been stated, but the group's claims appear to be valid when paired with the London Metropolitan Police's recent report of protestors stealing and vandalizing upwards of a dozen ULEZ cameras per week.
Police have launched an ongoing special mission dubbed "Operation Eremon" to stop the Blade Runners and anyone else who damages the cameras. It's not clear at this time what special enforcement techniques or monitoring are being done as part of the operation.
London mayor Sadiq Khan reminded protesters that vandalism is a crime and urged those protesting to remain lawful, as destroying and stealing the ULEZ cameras certainly is not. Khan also said that the purpose of the ULEZ program isn't to rake in revenue, but instead to protect the health of the population by lowering pollution in the region. Meanwhile, some opponents, per radio station LBC, have called these activists "heroes" for saving locals from being charged by TFL.
ULEZ enforcement is not a new concept to Londoners. Boris Johnson, former U.K. Prime Minister and former Mayor of London announced plans for the ULEZ in 2015. It was officially launched in Central London in April 2019, only to be expanded two years later by a factor of 18.
Following the first expansion, an average of 45,800 drivers paid the ULEZ charge per day, which brought in a revenue of $20.3 million (16 million gbp) during the first month of the expansion in 2021.
The zone will be expanded yet again later this month on Aug. 29 to cover 600 square miles, up from the current 147-square-mile footprint it operates in. Local governments within the new footprint attempted to challenge the expansion in court last month, however, the plan was determined to be lawful and is planned to go live on time. The expansion is estimated to force as many as 40,000 non-compliant vehicles off the road due to increased operating costs.
And with that expansion of the ULEZ looming, contractors have nearly 1,000 new cameras to install by the end of the month—all while maintaining and replacing existing cameras that are being targeted by vandals.
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