Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Will it be enough to clear the city’s air?
Cars around Madrid are moving much slower this week. In the Spanish capital’s Chamberí District, speed limits were slashed Wednesday from 50 kilometers per hour (31 mph) to 30 kph (18.6 mph). A central neighborhood just north of Madrid’s historic core, Chamberí’s new rules are part of a pilot project that, if successful, could be rolled out across inner Madrid. In that whole area, called the “Central Almond” because of its vaguely nut-like shape, no vehicle would be allowed to travel much faster than a vigorously pedaled bike.
It should be perfectly possible to lower the speed limit across this area without creating jams. According to a study commissioned under Madrid’s previous mayor, Ana Botella, 63 percent of the city streets host less than 10,000 cars a day put together—that’s just 15 percent of total traffic. Forcing cars on these roads to reduce their speed would not just help to cut pollution, but also greatly reduce the risk of collisions with pedestrians and cyclists.
Madrid already has some protections in place to manage motor traffic, of course. As CityLab reported in 2014, so-called Zones of Residential Priority already restrict vehicles belonging to non-residents from entering
As cars are steadily slowed down and thinned out in number, bike infrastructure in the city will also get a boost. Madrid’s current 70-kilometer bike lane network is separated from traffic solely by paint markings on the road. This cheap solution gives the illusion of some security to riders, but, as the experience of London shows, still leaves them as vulnerable to motor traffic as they ever were. This year, Madrid is finally getting some properly segregated lanes, where riders can cycle behind barriers that drastically cut the likelihood of car collisions. With just thirteen segregated lanes to be created, this safer network will still remain in its infancy—but it’s a huge step in a city that has so far lagged behind other European capitals in clearing space for two-wheeled transit.
Getting residents to switch over to bikes in large numbers may not be easy. Here again, the city is taking a lead of sorts. This month Madrid announced a plan for city police to swap cars for bikes. In the central Lavapiés neighborhood, a new squad of officers will be patrolling the streets next year on two wheels. The idea is to offer community policing rather than a crack crime response force—this lively multicultural neighborhood may have the odd bag-snatcher and weed peddlers, but apparently has a low rate of more serious crime. Even if police needed to give chase, bikes would probably be a better bet in the area’s narrow (and occasionally steep) streets, in places where cars would be impractical or even dangerous to bystanders. Just like the speed limit cut, the bike cop plan is another pilot project that could be rolled out across the city if it works well.
These car-calming, bike promoting measures might seem bracingly proactive, but they’re badly needed. Madrid has long notoriously suffered from a thick fog of pollution, a cap-like cloud above the city’s plateau known locally as La Boina, or the beret. As Spain’s economy laboriously pulls itself out of the financial crisis that has beleaguered it since 2008, air pollution in the country is currently on the rise. Rather than wait for problems to get even worse, Madrid needs to act now. These new measures show a healthy concern for air quality and road safety, but they still may not be enough on their own to clear Madrid’s dingy air.