Madrid’s new mayor is trying to scrap the city’s traffic reduction scheme. It’s not going well

No go: the boundary of the Madrid Central traffic scheme. Image: Getty.

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.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just 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.”