Madrid’s mayor is determined to clean up its air – by pedestrianising its biggest shopping street

The pilot scheme. Image: Sebastian Mann.

This month, a fairly innocuous A-road in south London breached a 2017 pollution limit just five days into the year. On the same day, Madrid’s left-wing mayor pledged to ban cars from a massive six-lane highway through the heart of the Spanish capital. If Manuela Carmena gets her way, Gran Vía, one of Madrid’s busiest roads but also a major shopping hub like Oxford Street, will be almost completely pedestrianised by 2019.

Her plans are part of a bold green vision that includes banning cars from the city centre, and even stretches to installing gardens on top of buses and bus shelters. They also represent the latest skirmish between the city and the private vehicle in the battle to make major metropolises somewhere it’s actually safe to live.

The proposals, which were tested out over the Christmas period, transform nearly half the road into pedestrianised zones, allowing shoppers to spill safely off narrow pavements while the rest of the street is left to public transport and the odd resident’s car. Importantly, other major roads in the area also face stringent traffic limits, making it devilishly difficult to dodge the restrictions with rat-runs through the centre. Officials are now analysing the temporary experiment ahead of implementing a permanent ban – but Carmena has confirmed she has every intention of carrying it out before her term ends in 2019.

Carmena, who leads the Ahora Madrid coalition backed by left-wing populists Podemos, appears to be moved by aesthetic as well as environmental concerns. Outlining her plans in a 4 January interview with Spanish radio station Cadena SER, she described the model for Gran Vía’s car ban – the street of the same name in Bilbao 0 as “deliciously pedestrianised”. Other city officials have also been quoted saying the broad aim is to make the place “well, just nicer”.

But the green case is uncontroversial and urgent. Campaigners estimate traffic fumes in Madrid kill as many as 2,000 people each year – something attributable to a toxic cocktail of over-reliance on the car and a natural atmospheric phenomenon that traps pollution in the city. Madrid has one car for every two of its 3.2m inhabitants, and its position on a plateau means that, in winter months, smog often grips the city literally in a choke-hold. Locals call it La Boina, or “The Beret”, because of the way the fumes sit like a hat above the city centre.

The scheme in action. Image: Sebastian Mann.

Environmental activist Simon Birkett, who runs the Clean Air in London campaign group, believes Madrid’s efforts demonstrate a “wonderful competition”, driving attempts from city mayors across Europe to out-do each other. The Spanish capital’s measures, he says, send a message to London to “get on with pedestrianising Oxford Street”.

However, he urges caution over implementation. “It’s similar in a way to the Oxford Street issue,” he says. “The risk is that you shut off that road and you get people driving around the side streets. What I would say is you have to combine this with the halving of traffic in the whole area.”

His warning is not wide of the mark. When Gran Vía’s temporary car ban was put in place over Christmas, it initially led to bottlenecks at key junctions while motorists came to terms with the restrictions.


But Madrid is also behind a greater assault on the private vehicle. On 29 December, half of all cars were banned from the centre on the (fairly arbitrary) basis of their number plates. It was an unprecedented response to spiking NO2 levels, and seemed like a radical statement of intent in the battle to make the city more liveable.

Other policies take a more softly, softly approach – such as the polite messages on the Metro that thank passengers for choosing public transport on particularly polluted days. What’s more, city transport bosses are trying to get their own house in order by completely replacing dirty, inefficient diesel buses with a 2,000-strong fleet of greener electric vehicles by 2025. In the meantime, officials want to plant gardens on top of buses and bus stops in an effort to soak up CO2 emissions, with shrubs being dug into turf aboard the vehicles at a cost of €2,500 a pop.

When Gran Vía was built at the beginning of the 20th century, it was considered an axe blow through the heart of Madrid. The bold project to effectively construct a Spanish Broadway – part arterial traffic link, part entertainment hub lined with theatres, restaurants and bars – led to disruption and meant the demolition of dozens of buildings.

Some one hundred years on, the theatres have been replaced by shops, and the street is again the focal point of an inevitably disruptive plan. But now, as then, the bold steps are necessary if Madrid wants to remain a modern and bustling yet liveable city. The current administration, it seems, is willing to drive the change. 

 
 
 
 

Cats and dogs and Pokémon and ball pools: The eight joyful trains of Japan

Okay, it may not look like much, but... the exterior of the Genbi Shinkansen art experience. Image: ©Mika Ninagawa, used courtesy of Tomio Koyama Gallery.

If you’re on this website, you’ll likely agree with the statement: trains are good. We like trains. Trains are marvellous.

But in Britain our idea of a good train is “runs on time, doesn’t smell of wee, possibly has a spare seat”. Our national rail ambition has been battered by years of this crap: the most exciting we can hope for is to catch sight of the Orient Express as it flashes through a station, or a ride on the Settle to Carlisle railway.

Yet in Japan, there are trains dedicated to art and sake and Pokemon. There’s a train with a ball pool, for Christ’s sake.

These trains aren’t usually part of the ‘real’ timetable (that is, they don’t show up in the regular searches), and sometimes only run on specific days, they do still run proper routes. The Tohoku Emotion, for instance (all about dining; one car is an open kitchen) runs between Hachinohe and Kuji, adding a direct train between those cities in an otherwise annoying two hour gap.


Cost is, of course, another issue. It’s not possible to book many of these trains outside Japan so prices are tricky to come by, and some of the dining packages on offer will obviously involve laying down some hefty yen.

That said, the Kawasemi Yamasemi, an exquisitely decorated train that runs three times every day direct between Kumamoto and Hitoyoshi in central Kyushu, costs about the same as travelling between the two on the bullet train (it’s faster too, because it’s direct). And I’m happy to bet the farm that any of these trains will cost a damn sight less than Japan’s newest, shiniest novelty train – and probably be more fun.

So without further ado, here are some of the best – and this really is what they’re called – Joyful Trains in Japan.

Pokémon with YOU

Yes, there really is a Pokémon train. Introduced in Tohoku to cheer up – and raise money for – the region’s children after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the service runs between Ichinoseki and Kesennuma stations, and if Niantic hasn’t worked out a way to put special Pokémon Go characters at each station, it’s missing a trick. There’s a playroom with big Snorlax cushions, the Drilbur Tunnel and real life Poké balls. And, as far as we can tell, a seat costs less than a fiver.

Oh, and because it’s run by JR East, you can do a Google Street View walkthrough of the whole train, which are available for many of the company’s Joyful Trains. Japan. Is. Awesome.

Image: Google Street View.

Tama-Den

If cute character-themed trains are your thing, then you should also check out the Tama-Den which runs on the Wakayama Electric Railway’s Kishigawa line. Tama, you may recall, was a calico cat who became feted as a stationmaster, and elevated into a goddess when she died in 2015. (Her replacement, Tama II, works a five day week at Kishi station.) The Tama-Den is covered in drawings of her. And you thought your cat was spoiled.

Meow? Image: as365n2/Flickr/creative commons.

The same company also runs the Omo-den, which is all about toys and has cash-guzzling capsule toy vending machines on board.

Aso Boy!

Where there’s a cat train, there must also be a dog. Aso Boy! usually takes you past the caldera of Mount Aso, the largest active volcano in Japan, but since the Kumamoto earthquake the route is altered.

 But even with the lack of its main scenic draw, this is still a top train because it features the cutest of all Japan’s regional mascots. Kuro is JR Kyushu’s yuru-chara and the damnably adorable dog gets everywhere. It’s one-up on the Tama-Den because you can buy Kuro-themed food and souvenirs, and this is the train with the ball pool.

The balls are wooden though. Ouch.

On board Aso Boy! Image: Jill Chen/Flickr/creative commons.

Genbi Shinkansen

The bullet train is cool enough, but this one is decorated inside and out with the work of eight modern artists. Running between Niigata and Echigo-Yuzawa, the Genbi Shinkansen reckons it’s the world’s fastest art experience. With a journey time of just under an hour, works range from standard wall-mounted paintings to art that’s literally part of the furniture.

Images: ©Mika Ninagawa, used courtesy of Tomio Koyama Gallery.

SL Ginga

Not only is this train hauled by a steam locomotive, it has a freaking planetarium on board. It’s inspired by children’s author Kenji Miyazawa’s book Night on the Galactic Railroad which is set in the early 20th century, and the decor is meant to echo that era. There are galleries devoted to Miyazawa’s life, and the train runs between Hanamaki – where he was from – and Kamaishi.

Image: Google Street View.

FruiTea Fukushima

The whole of Fukushima province has been tainted by association with its namesake nuclear power plant, which is deeply unfair as it’s a gorgeous part of the country.

To drum up tourism, the FruiTea train went into service a couple of years ago on the standard line connecting Koriyama to Aizu-Wakamatsu, a castle-and-samurai town. There are several Joyful Trains dedicated to eating and drinking, but this one deserves a mention because its locally produced fruit snacks and drinks deserve wider recognition. As does the area.

Here’s your Google Street View walkthrough:

Image: Google Street View.

Shu*Kura

There are three Shu*Kura trains, all departing from Joetsumyoko but with different destinations. This is another train dedicated to eating and, well... drinking.

Niigata Prefecture claims to brew the finest sake in the world, and this three car service showcases the best of them. It also has live music and snacks, but the point here is that you can stand at a sake cask-themed bar and get tiddly without anyone judging you, like they would for that M&S prosecco.

And check out the lights on that thing.

Image: Google Street View.

Toreiyu Tsubasa

This is the train to catch if you want to go full Japan. Most of the cars don’t have seats, they have tatami mats and low tables instead, billed as a ‘conversation space’.

There’s another tatami car designed as more of a lounge for people after they’ve used the footbath. Yes, you did read that correctly. A footbath. You’re not going to want your shoes with all this tatami anyway, and it’s a unique way to view the scenery between Fukushima and Shinjo.

Image: Google Street View.

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