A section of Madrid's Gran Vía due for reduced car lanes and a new segregated bike track. Javier Barbancho/Reuters

Spain’s capital makes a big push for better air quality.

The European city with the most ambitious plans to improve its air quality this year probably isn’t the first one that comes to mind. It isn’t one of the usual suspects like Amsterdam, Copenhagen, or Paris—it isn’t even north of the Alps. In fact, it’s Madrid, which is embarking on what, policy-wise, could be its greenest year yet.

While Spain’s national politics lurch through crisis, the country’s capital is actually getting down to business to improve its poor air quality, making the city altogether more healthy and livable. It’s doing so by introducing a host of air-cleaning measures under a 30-point plan entitled Plan A—“because there is no plan B,” Mayor Manuela Carmena says.

The first major change actually started last month, albeit more with a whimper than a bang. Just as it did last year, Madrid closed its main drag—the broad, often car-filled avenue Gran Vía—to cars at the beginning of December. By now, this is a well embedded tool for making holiday shopping more pleasant—but this time, it will never quite end. Cars will return on January 7, but the streets won’t be the same for long. Later in the month, Madrid plans to start doubling the street’s sidewalks, taking space from car lanes to give pedestrians an extra 58,000 square feet of space, plus a segregated bike lane down its busiest stretch.

While this will reduce car space on a very busy thoroughfare, Gran Vía will soon be one of the few parts of central Madrid that admits non-local cars at all. In June, Madrid will debut its Zero Emissions Zone, which will only allow local residents, people with limited mobility, or zero-emissions vehicles to drive into most of the old city. Between June and 2020, people who own or rent one of the few central parking spots will also be allowed access, but from 2020 on they will only be allowed to park there if they have a zero-emissions vehicle.

This is all to the good. Much of inner Madrid consists of knotty little streets and squares where cars always struggled to fit in. The vital role of Gran Vía and parallel avenues in connecting the wider city means Madrid will stop short of a total central car ban. The municipality nonetheless predicts that the changes will be sweeping enough to slash traffic across the city by 20 percent as people give up on the idea of driving into town.

Madrid is clearly hoping that at least some of these drivers will switch to cycling. The city is doubling its number of bikeshare bikes and extending docking stations for the first time beyond the M30 beltway. The beltway itself, meanwhile, will be facing measures to reduce its emissions. Currently, the city introduces a 70 kilometer per hour (43 mph) speed limit during pollution peaks, one of several measures it takes to help clear the dirty air that often sits like a pall over the city during the colder months. By the end of the year, this 70 kph speed limit will be made permanent, significantly reducing the speed—and thus the emissions—of traffic circulating around the city’s edge.

Regular drivers who switch to buses, meanwhile, will be using a network that is altogether cleaner. This month, Madrid is inaugurating its first electric-only, wire-free bus line, ultimately expanding its electric fleet to 78 vehicles. Meanwhile, the municipality is trying to practice what it preaches, converting municipal buildings to renewable energy use. Between October and the end of the year, municipal buildings will turn renewable only, the larger ones being fitted with solar panels that perform well in Madrid’s often sunny climate.

The breadth of the changes is broad enough to demand an obvious question: How has the city’s government pushed these measures through? Carmena’s administration is succeeding partly because it is courting public opinion. It submitted the plans to remodel Gran Vía to a public vote last February, receiving a resounding majority in favor, albeit from a very small turnout.

Secondly, the city has been working to resolve a classic stand-off between a left-wing city government and a right-wing regional government, where the latter’s representation of a large number of ex-urban car commuters has made it understandably more critical of car-calming measures. While the two bodies do not agree, the Community of Madrid—as Madrid state is known—did sign an agreement last year to improve air quality by cutting speed limits on wider beltways that lie far beyond the city limits.

It’s a major step forward now that the Madrid region’s two authorities both agree that air quality needs to improve, even if they don’t see the road map exactly the same way. It may be left and centre-left city governments who are more proactive in pushing for cleaner air, but controlling cars and managing air quality is, in mainland Europe at least, fast becoming a bipartisan issue. For other cities, this is perhaps the most encouraging aspect of Madrid’s efforts.

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