The French ZCR and ZPA environmental zones
The environmental zones introduced in France can be divided in two types: those zones where traffic is restricted and those where the goal is air protection. The zones where traffic is restricted are called “traffic restriction zones” (ZCR, French acronym). The zones where the priority is air protection are called “air protection zones” (ZPA, French acronym).
The ZCR environmental zones
The zones of limited traffic, “Zones à circulation restreinte” (ZCR) in French, are permanent environmental zones and are always valid. They are most often introduced in city centers, in order to exclude old and polluting vehicles from traffic.
The introduction of a ZCR in France is the responsibility of every city or municipality and is regulated by the national Décret YCR 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. In order to drive in the cities and municipalities of France that have introduced an environmental zone ZCR, it is necessary to have a Crit’Air vignette, which consists of 6 different categories.
The city or municipality will decide which category of the Crit’Air vignette will be able to drive in the ZCR environmental zone during what time of the day. For that purpose, a sign will be installed under the usual ZCR sign. This additional sign will indicate the days and hours on which driving with a Crit’Air vignette is allowed. Furthermore, ZCR will also entail other advantages, such as parking privileges. However, this advantages will also be decided individually by each city or municipality.
The mid and long term goal of a ZCR environmental zone is for certain vignette categories to be banned from traffic altogether. First category 5, then 4, then 3, and so on, will be excluded from traffic at specific times of the day.
As a general rule, it is not expected that specific vignette colors will be excluded from traffic in ZCR zones depending on the weather. However, it may happen that a ZCR is located inside a ZPA. The prefect of the ZPA may then exclude one or two vignette categories from both the ZCR and ZPA zone on the next day, by means of a decree and a public announcement, in case the weather situation or an air pollution peak should require it.
If the city with its ZCR is not surrounded by a ZPA zone, this does not apply, for bad weather does not authorize the mayor of the ZCR zone to limit circulation for specific vignette colors.
ZPA air protection zones
In contrast to the ZCR zones, the “air protection zones”— “Zones de protection de l’air” (ZPA) in French— are no permanent and only affect municipalities and big cities (“metropoles”, in French). ZPA zones are established for large cities (e.g., Grenoble) or for whole geographical areas (e.g., the Arve Valley).
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 fine particulates and nitrogen oxides are exceeded during several days. Depending on the level of pollution, it will be determined what vignette color can drive on what days through the zone. Norms can vary from ZPA zone to ZPA zone and from city to city. As soon as the weather improves, restrictions in the air protection zone will not be valid anymore.
A special feature of ZPA air protection zones is that their limits (often rural) are not well signaled for drivers who don’t know the area.
According to Article R411-19 of the French traffic law, the decision to introduce an air protection zone and to define the valid norms at the local level is the responsibility of the prefect of the département where the ZPA zone is located. There are 95 départements in France. As soon as a ZPA zone is defined, the prefect will publish a decree in order to give the zone legal validity.
The déparement’s prefect will announced traffic restrictions in an air protection zone no later than the evening of the day before, sometimes even earlier if the weather is predictable enough. The circulation ban for certain vignette colors will apply to the whole zone. Should there be a ZCR zone inside the ZPA zone, then the norms for the banned vignettes will also be valid for the ZCR zone. The usual norms for the ZCR zone will be valid again only when the restrictions for the ZPA zone cease to be valid.
Another special feature of ZPA zones is that circulation can be restricted for one or two vignette colors, while at the same time it is allowed for a part of those vehicles to drive, on a particular day, depending on whether the plate number is odd or even.
The limits of 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 ZCR zone is established in the city’s center 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 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 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.