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.