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Central Madrid Rolls Out a Tough-Love Plan to Limit Cars

Spain's capital city aims to unclog its highly trafficked center by putting the hurt on drivers' wallets.

Drive a car into central Madrid and expect to receive a €90 ($115 U.S) ticket soon after. That’s the radical new rule beginning this January, when the Spanish capital will launch measures to sweep its core free of cars. As of next year, drivers who don’t live in Madrid’s four most central barrios will only be allowed to drive into them for free if they have a guaranteed space in one of the area’s 13 official parking lots. For anyone else who brings their car into the area (as recorded by cameras placed at the zone’s entry points), a €90 fine will be sent to the address where the car is registered.

Part of this zone is in place already (in the barrios of Cortes and Embajadores), but the new rules will more than double the current area to 1.36 square miles of Madrid’s downtown. If current mayor Ana Botella has her way, the scheme will be extended to two further barrios—bar-filled Chueca and Malasaña—before she steps down next year. On top of all this, there are further (but not yet fully approved) plans to pedestrianize 25 percent more of inner Madrid and increase its number of bus lanes, putting the area well on the way to an almost car-free future.

(Ayuntamiento de Madrid)

Fining most of a city’s drivers for even entering most of the city center sounds pretty drastic. Madrid’s new rules certainly go a step beyond congestion charging, the usual downtown traffic jam remedy. There are some key concessions to make the plans workable, however: Major through-routes bisecting the central zone will remain open to cars, as will the ring of arterial avenues that enclose it. It’s only when drivers turn off these main routes that license plates will be recorded. People living in the side streets will be able to come and go as they please, as will delivery vans between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., and motorbikes between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.—before they are barred to allow locals a more peaceful night’s sleep. What will change is the habit of driving either to work or to one of the area’s bars or restaurants and just hoping to find a parking spot in some alley or other.

That such sweeping change is possible is arguably due more to public pressure than proactive officials. Central Madrid is still a heavily residential area and the new laws have widespread support. When the first part of the scheme was introduced to the small Cortes neighborhood around Spain’s parliament in 2004, it was extended to the much larger, poorer Embajadores neighborhood next door largely thanks to constant petitioning by locals. The reasons for the scheme’s popularity are obvious once you visit the area, which has a streetplan that in parts dates back to the Middle Ages. A challenge for the average driver, roads are generally narrow, often crooked, and, in the areas sloping down to the Manzanares River, pretty steep. These districts already soak up much of Madrid’s nighttime activity, and allowing cars here only makes the streets dirtier, louder, more congested, and more dangerous. With decent public transport making it easy to get here from the outskirts, there’s no really good reason to drive here in the first place.

Managing the new zone will be no easy feat. The city estimates that it will cost €500,000 annually to maintain, not a negligible sum for a city that is more hard-up than it was a decade ago. But the potential benefits are still high: a boost in life quality for central Madrid residents, a drop in pollution-related illness and accident-related injury, and a potential tourism boost for an area whose historic charms still go largely unsung. If all these are delivered on, the cost of Central Madrid’s substantially car-free future could end up looking pretty cheap.

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