Pao Link/Flickr

Gran Vía should be car-free within three years.

Visit Madrid’s Gran Vía in five years’ time and you won’t find a car in sight.

That’s the promise coming from the Mayor Manuela Carmena this week, following a lengthy debate over the future of the city’s main street. Talking on radio network Cadena Ser on Thursday, Carmena confirmed that Madrid’s central avenue will only allow access to bikes, buses, and taxis before her term ends in May 2019.

The plan shows impressive, even daunting ambition. An antidote to images of European cities as quaint and crooked, Gran Vía is a blaringly busy, six-lane road smashed through the city’s heart in 1910. Appearance-wise, it’s arguably closer to New York’s Broadway than it is to the Champs Elysées, not so much an elegant refined boulevard as a loud, brash masonry canyon flanked by boxy, elaborate, neon-clad buildings from the 1920s and ‘30s. It’s currently an essential route bisecting the city center, and rerouting car traffic away from it is likely to prove an intricate task—and one that risks being highly controversial.

Luckily, Carmena already has some strong arguments on her side—not least the success of a temporary nine-day closure of the street and its surrounding area last month during a long string of national holidays. A classic objection to pedestrianizing major shopping and entertainment areas such as Gran Vía is that the move makes it harder for car-driving customers to reach businesses and thus slashes the number of shoppers.

In her interview with Cadena Ser, Carmena said major businesses along the road had told her that their year-on-year turnover increased 15 percent in the time when the road was closed. Moreover, Spain already has a successful model for this kind of car-free makeover: the city of Bilbao’s identically named Gran Vía, where sidewalks have been extended into the roadway (as you can see in this Google Street View image) to leave just two lanes for buses, taxis, and deliveries.

That doesn’t mean Madrid’s Gran Vía plan can expect an easy ride. Last month alone, Carmena’s rival Esperanza Aguirre, leader of the right-wing Popular Party in Madrid, threatened to sue the city for the nine-day closure, posting a photo of herself on the road that very soon became a popular meme.

Plans to re-route traffic away from Gran Vía should prove no less contested, not least because the likely (but still unconfirmed) solution may ultimately be to restrict cars as much as possible to a wider beltway-style ring around the city core, leaving the whole of central Madrid as a traffic-calmed quasi-pedestrian zone where only residents have parking rights. If the harsh media kickback against Paris’s recent car ban along the Right Bank of the Seine is anything to go by, Madrid may need to square up for a fight.

Such plans might sound radical, even utopian, but Madrid’s often appalling air quality means that simply tolerating the status quo would equal tacit acceptance of lowered life expectancy for people who live or work in the city center. Already the city is being forced to bring in temporary driving restrictions when pollution levels reach dangerous peaks. The most recent of these happened just last week, when the city introduced parking bans, alternate driving days and a 70 kmh speed limit within the city’s M60 Beltway, stopping just short of the total driving ban it brings in during the worst periods.

Such measures may lessen the worst excesses of Madrid’s pollution, but they alone won’t solve it. With Gran Vía transformed from a striking but muggy-aired impromptu expressway to a clean, car-less promenade, however, the city should have set itself on the right track to turn things around.

About the Author

Feargus O'Sullivan
Feargus O'Sullivan

Feargus O'Sullivan is a London-based contributing writer to CityLab, with a focus on Europe.

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