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.

 
 
 
 

What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.