Madrid’s new mayor could not have chosen a more politically explosive moment to pull the plug on the fledgling Madrid Central scheme. As governments across Europe declare a state of climate emergency after months of protest and direct action waves, the Spanish capital intends to roll back green measures introduced by the previous city hall – for reasons, its critics say, of little more than revanchism and knee-jerk party politics.
The Madrid Central initiative, which comprised a series of traffic restrictions in limited but key areas of Madrid’s snarled-up city centre, was one of a number of proposals encompassing the former mayor’s green vision for the city. Launched late last year, the scheme was found this May to have reduced air pollution in the city to its lowest levels in a decade.
The new administration in Madrid’s city hall, though, has campaigned ferociously against the project and made it as much their flagship issue in opposition as it was the flagship policy for the previous government in office. It now finds itself stuck to a pledge to reverse Madrid Central since re-entering the Cibeles Palace (before 2015 the conservative Popular Party, or PP, had controlled city hall since 1991). But overturning the scheme has not proven straightforward.
Its earliest attempt to suspend Madrid Central stalled several weeks ago, as the traffic reduction measures were reinstated by a court order after a short-lived ban. During the days the scheme‘s traffic fines were lifted in the city centre’s new clean air zones, emissions were found to have risen sharply.
A map of the scheme. Image: Wikimedia Commons.
The push to dismantle Madrid Central encountered further setbacks last week, as the precautionary decision to halt the new mayor’s moratorium was upheld by another court ruling. And last Friday a third judge in little over a fortnight ruled against city hall’s action.
Jorge Castaño García, a councillor who oversaw the rollout of Madrid Central as part of the previous city hall administration, told me: “This was the first experience of traffic-reduction measures in a historic part of Madrid. Really it was a small step and it has worked even better than expected”. He pointed to “the emissions decrease, a fall in road accidents and a rise in consumer activity around the city centre, smoother circulation for public transport, and a marked rise in the purchase of electric cars” as indicators of its success.
The attempted repeal of Madrid Central has provoked a considerable civic response. Two days after the ban was imposed, in sweltering temperatures exceeding 40 degrees Celsius, over 60,000 demonstrators gathered in central Madrid to protest the proposed scrapping of the scheme – marching down Gran Vía, the city’s main arterial thoroughfare, where one of the ex-mayor’s key traffic-reduction initiatives was piloted. June saw record-breaking temperatures not only in Madrid, but across almost all of Spain, as a series of wildfires devastated parts of Catalonia and other regions.
In light of the Madrid Central dispute, the European Commission has warned Spain it could be hit with fresh punishment for its failure to comply with air quality standards, adding to the €12m fines it incurred for urban waste and water treatment infringements in 2018. The role Madrid Central played in the decision last year to put on hold infringement proceedings was recognised by Europe in December. Still, Brussels has urged both Madrid and Barcelona to ramp up their efforts to combat climate change, beyond simply restoring Madrid Central. This week, it escalated its disciplinary action threats for the cities’ failure to take more “serious” measures, reopening the shelved case.
As the Madrid Central row rumbles on, Barcelona looks to press ahead with a more ambitious green agenda after its left-wing mayor, Ada Colau, successfully formed a new government last month. Colau’s administration is seeking to bring in its own extended low emissions zone in the city next year, alongside a raft of other environmental measures currently being debated as part of a “participatory process” forum open to Barcelona residents.
Manuela Carmena, the recently-departed mayor of the Spanish capital, told El País this month it is “unthinkable that the capital of Spain should be against the fight to prevent climate change”. She believes the new administration will soon run out of road and be required to perform a U-turn on Madrid Central.
Yet such a move is still far from certain. Carmena’s party won the most seats in May’s elections to city hall, but she herself missed out on re-election. As has been the case in other municipal and regional governments in Spain, a tripartite right-wing administration has been formed in Madrid with the combined votes of the PP, the more liberal-tinged Ciudadanos (Citizens) party and new far-right force, Vox.
The newly incumbent mayor, José Luis Martínez Almeida, has complained about the New York Times’ recent coverage of his administration’s decision to reverse Madrid Central’s driving ban, openly criticising the newspaper in the Spanish press for allegedly having not consulted his office before running the story. The PP’s Madrid branch did not respond to a request for comment.
At both the regional and municipal level, PP leaders have raised eyebrows with their comments regarding Madrid Central – part of what García Castaño describes as the “culture war” a “radicalised right” has whipped up around the project. On the campaign trail, the party’s regional leader Isabel Díaz Ayuso bafflingly argued that congestion represented an integral “part of the city’s identity”, while national leader Pablo Casado asserted that Madrid Central actually fuelled pollution. Moreover, Ayuso and Almeida both suggested in recent weeks that Madrid Central had helped increase crime rates – claims that have since been rubbished by police and crime experts.
Despite the wild rhetoric, the new mayor has been forced to accept the principles of Madrid Central to a certain degree, even if critics say he intends to do so “in name only”. PP leaders now say they are instead looking to modify the scheme, rather than ditch it altogether. But, as the series of court defeats and Brussels’ ultimatums have made clear, the metre is running low for the new administration on a number of fronts.