A photo of Madrid's Gran Via
Private cars have been banned from Madrid's Gran Via, but for how long? Samuel de Roman/Getty

With more conservative leadership moving in after elections, the Spanish capital’s pollution-fighting regulations on private vehicles may be in danger.

Updated: July 24, 2019 After promising to cancel the car ban, a public backlash forced the mayor to reconsider. For the latest development, read: In Madrid, a Car Ban Proves Stronger Than Partisan Politics

Last year, Madrid made history with one of the most comprehensive bans on private vehicles in any European city. The new regulations  barred cars not just from the Spanish capital’s historic core, but also from what had been major car routes, including the city’s main avenue, Gran Via. But following knife-edge elections at the end of May, however, that progressive policy looks to be “condemned to death,” as one newspaper headline on Tuesday put it dramatically.

The reasons are, as you would expect, political. A new three-party coalition will now govern the city, involving a right-wing, a centrist and an extreme-right party. All have previously declared themselves in some form against the car ban introduced by Madrid’s outgoing left-wing mayor, Manuela Carmena.

Indeed, this new coalition so far appears to be vociferously in favor of both automobiles and their attendant impacts. The likely new president of the Madrid region (not the city’s mayor), Isabel Díaz Ayuso, even suggested that late-night traffic congestion is “a sign of the city’s identity.” Is Madrid’s role as a city with one of Europe’s most progressive transportation and pollution policies drawing to an unexpected close?

An alliance on the right shifts the balance of power

The political reversal is real enough: The mayor who pushed these policies didn’t secure enough votes. But the election doesn’t really represent a massive repudiation of Madrid’s progressive agenda. Look closely at the results and you see that the city’s political realignment is more like a subtle shift in the balance of power. When outgoing Mayor Carmena came into office in 2015, she did so at the head of a broad left coalition with a narrow majority of 29 seats out of 57. Following last month’s elections, Carmena’s party emerged again as the Madrid assembly’s largest party, losing just one seat.

The game changer is that the right-wing Popular Party (PP) and the centrist Ciudadanos brokered a deal with recently emerged extreme-right party Vox, whose four seats gave them just enough to tip the coalition over the finishing line, with 29 seats collectively. Vox doesn’t even bother to dog-whistle its racist views, peddling a rhetoric that suggests Spain’s cathedrals are in danger of being torn down to build mosques; it’s also avowedly anti-feminist and anti-marriage equality. The full political consequences of this pact remain to be seen, but it’s worth pointing out that this extreme-right party has been granted political power and a seat at the table in Madrid’s affairs despite holding only a tiny amount of support in the city itself. It’s unfortunately possible that the city’s progressive road policy will not be the most serious casualty of this pact.

A casualty it would nonetheless be, along with the substantial pollution drops associated with its first five months of operation. Outside Madrid’s City Hall, carbon dioxide levels dropped 44 percent year-on-year while nitrogen dioxide fell by 42 percent, according to monitoring by local ecologists. Property values within the car-ban-zone rose at a rate notably higher than surrounding neighborhoods, while footfall in commercial streets remained reportedly stable. However, these figures have been disputed by some local retail associations, who insist that their turnover has fallen since their businesses became less accessible by car.

Accordingly, the car ban was already set to be a battleground for succeeding city leaders: Madrid’s likely next mayor, PP candidate José Luis Martínez-Almeida, has promised to address the issue as the new administration’s first action. Right now, however, the form that action will take is unclear.

What about a (very) big dig?

The extreme-right party, Vox, supports another option: Keep the cars off the Gran Via and channel that traffic into a cross-downtown tunnel. This would appease the pro-car lobby without alienating locals who have grown fond of the pedestrianized main street. Such an ambitious tunnel plan has kicked around Madrid for many years, and most local experts agree that it’s not feasible. In El Pais, they explain why: Four subway lines cross the avenue along its length, along with various other tunnels and underpasses. Threading a motorway through this subterranean Swiss cheese would be very complex, and any tunnel would either have to disgorge its rumbling cargo of cars in Plaza de Cibeles—one of Madrid’s most iconic architectural ensembles—or be extended out to one of the tunnels that feeds the city’s beltway, which would be incredibly expensive.

The plan is thus likely to end up back in the trash pretty quickly. More feasible is the idea of the city continuing to keep cars out of most of the city center, but allowing them back onto other main streets. That could still be a tough sell that would only get through if every pro-administration assembly member voted obediently with the coalition. And it could prove expensive in other ways: Madrid has in the past incurred millions of euros of fines from the E.U. for exposing its citizens to unacceptably high levels of pollution—levels that have since dropped, thanks to the car ban. A traffic spike that pushed pollution back above safe levels would be both costly and embarrassing. The new administration has thus declared itself committed to revising a policy on which it doesn’t have much room for maneuver.

The fate of Europe’s other anti-car policies

Madrid is hardly alone in its efforts to mitigate the impacts of private vehicles in Europe’s urban areas. Paris has banned cars from some major axial routes across town, a plan currently being followed by Brussels. London has severely tightened penalties for higher-emission vehicles, while Oslo is fighting (and winning) a long battle for a car-free center. On a national level, some tougher rules concerning cars have faced backlash. Most strikingly, France’s Gilets Jaunes movement has been at least partly inspired by the frustration and expense many motorists attribute to privileged urbanites unaware of how badly rural residents need their cars; they’ve been successful in rolling back proposed gas tax rises.  

Would a Madrilenian reversal bode ill for Europe’s other car bans? One might be tempted to see the city’s change of heart as the preliminary warning shot of a wider pro-car backlash. But it seems to better reflect the intricacies of Spain’s political alliance system, not a wave of public opinion against green transit policies. After all, car use in Spain has been falling for decades prior to the car ban; Spanish car sales fell 8.8 percent last year. In Madrid, the volume of private vehicles on the road has fallen by 23 percent since 2005.

There are wider social changes pulling vehicles off the roads in Spain, and this particular political shuffle in Madrid is unlikely to be powerful enough to stop that—even if the city’s boldest pro-pedestrian policies could become a thing of the past.

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