Owners of electric vehicles could be allowed to use bus lanes and even have priority at traffic lights, transport bosses have suggested.
The government have proposed the plans for five UK cities, Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton.
Incentives to encourage people to buy electric vehicles could include cheaper parking and “allowing access to bus lanes, exemptions from other restrictions such as one way systems, and priority at traffic lights for Ulevs [ultra low-emission vehicles].”
Launching its consultation on clean air zones the environment department said air pollution kills 50,000 people each year, at an annual cost to society of £27.5bn.
Electric vehicles do not emit pollution directly and will be used as a way to bring down levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the five cities, which are in breach of EU limits.
Local authorities hope these incentives will encourage people to buy electric vehicles.
Residents in each city will be consulted on their views first but the government said it wants each city to have a mandatory charge by 2020 for dirty buses, coaches, taxis and lorries, but not private cars.
Birmingham and Leeds will tackle older vans too.
As part of a different scheme London is on track for an Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ).
Drivers wishing to enter the ULEZ will have to ensure their vehicle meets emissions standards or pay a charge from 2019.
But the RAC says that, while it welcomes efforts to cut down on air pollution, the new proposals could cause “road safety chaos.”
RAC roads policy spokesman Nick Lyes said: “Poor air quality is not only caused by older, dirtier vehicles, but can also be linked by traffic hotspots and idle engines.
“It’s welcome that the framework recognises this, with due attention paid to road layouts and optimising traffic light conditions to improve traffic flow.
“There may be some merits in allowing ultra-low emission vehicles to use bus lanes where appropriate, but some other aspects could be a recipe for road safety chaos and confusion, in particular exempting ultra-low emission vehicles from one-way streets.”
He added that motorists are more likely to switch to ultra-low emission vehicles if there is a financial incentive for them to do so, such as Government plug-in grants.
“Likewise, more favourable parking rates and exemptions from congestion charging schemes seem to work. However, changes to VED rates for new cars from 2017 are likely to have the opposite effect, and unless you are purchasing a pure electric vehicle, your tax rate will be no more favourable from a more polluting vehicle after the first year,” he said.