A new plan would restrict traffic in Madrid on high-pollution days. Davide Zanchettin / Flickr

The Spanish capital wants to impose some pretty drastic measures when air quality is especially bad.

The city of Madrid is poised to enact some of the toughest anti-pollution laws in the world. When air quality drops beneath a new threshold, Spain’s capital will banish half the city’s cars from inner Madrid and introduce strict speed limits on the beltway. In an unusual spirit of municipal largesse, it will also make public transit entirely free to use for the day. Laboring under a reputation as one of Europe’s most congested, polluted capitals, Madrid could finally be about to clean up its act.

The rules may sound strong, but so is the problem. Madrid air is frequently filthy, while the city’s response to pollution has been so poor that it got an F grade in this year’s Soot Free Cities rankings. In winter the city’s high plateau is capped by a dingy dome of dirty air so familiar it has its own nickname—locals call “the beret” (“La Boina” in Spanish).

While the city has made headway by banning cars from the knottiest parts of its historic downtown, this measure has been partly counterbalanced by slashing public transit subsidies and pushing fares up hard. Pressure from the EU, whose legal pollution limits Madrid regularly exceeds, has been building for years, until the city’s administration finally took action. This March officials introduced a weaker, unenforced version of the new rules, but it still wasn’t enough.

The problem with the March laws was that they set pollution limits far too high. They required nitrous oxide levels to rise above 200 micrograms per cubic meter on two consecutive days, and as a result were never implemented. The new rules are far tougher.

How the plan works

Their outline is as follows. If on any single day, levels of nitrous oxide in central Madrid rise above 180 micrograms per cubic meter for more that two consecutive hours, a speed limit of 70 kmh (44 mph) will be introduced on the Madrid beltway. If this level continues for another day, non-resident cars will be banned from parking in inner Madrid.

If nitrous oxide levels reach 200 micrograms per cubic meter on any day, measures will be stricter still. Alternate driving days will be introduced for the large area of inner Madrid called the “Central Almond,” where a third of the city’s residents live. On day one, only cars with even number plates will be admitted to the zone, and on day two only odd numbered plates. Taxis will not be permitted to enter the zone unless they are carrying passengers. To sop up all those drivers banned from their cars, all public transit will be free.

Finally, there’s one extra measure for truly appalling pollution. If nitrous oxide levels reach above 400 micrograms per cubic meter (a level that Madrid has as yet never reached), then restrictions would be extended all the way to the outer beltway, effectively covering the entire city.

Not everyone is on board

With the city’s more polluted winter on the way, the measures could come into effect any day now. They have already proved controversial. Last week, the city caved to pressure from scooter riders to exempt them from the alternate day driving scheme. The plans have also formed a battleground between the two different, overlapping governing bodies that govern the city and its region. One of these is the city of Madrid itself, which covers Madrid proper and has a little less than 3.2 million residents. The other is the Community of Madrid (more akin to a U.S. state), which covers the wider metro area, but also farmland and mountains.

It’s the city that gets to decide its own transit policy, but it’s doing so under pressure from the community, whose transport commission slammed the plan earlier this week. According to statements published in El Pais yesterday, the measures would cost at least €1.86 million ($2 million) a day. If monthly or annual transit pass users are given the right to a refund for the free day, the cost could rise to €4 million ($4.4 million) daily. The community has also refused to foot any of the bill.

The standoff here is partly ideological. While the city is currently governed by a left-wing coalition under Mayor Manuela Carmena, the community is ruled by an alliance of rightists and centrists. Neither coalition has a strong majority. Factional politics aside, this is also a fight between center and periphery. The city of Madrid gets the worst of the pollution, but it’s the community who has the metro area’s long distance commuters in its electorate.

The plan could indeed be expensive—especially in a country that has never really recovered from the financial crisis—while its positive effects may take time to become measurable. But with local green activists estimating that pollution causes 2000 premature deaths in the city annually, the time for Madrid to finally take off its “beret” arguably came a long while ago.

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