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. 

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.