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.
The city center will be nearly car-free for nine days.
Madrid just gave its citizens a present for the holidays. The city closed the entire city center to most cars, turning the urban core into a de facto pedestrian zone.
Starting last Friday at 5 p.m. and continuing for nine days, vehicles belonging to non-residents are banned from entering a zone covering Madrid’s historic core as well as Gran Via, the blaring, multi-lane avenue that serves as the Spanish capital’s main drag and as a major through-route for crosstown traffic.
Buses, cabs and residents’ cars will still be crawling the streets, although restricted to a specially lowered 30 kmh (18 mph) speed limit. The otherwise blanket ban in the throbbing, vehicle-packed heart of a major metropolis is one of the boldest anti-car plans seen in Europe so far. To get a loose idea of the scale in American terms, imagine banning all cars in Manhattan from driving south of 14th Street.
The restrictions, which end Sunday at 10 p.m., couldn’t come at a better time. It’s not just that the holiday shopping season is in full swing in Spain’s busiest commercial district, making the place a whole lot more manageable for shoppers on foot. Spain also has two national holidays this week: Tuesday’s Constitution Day and Thursday’s Immaculate Conception Day. These make early December a classic choice for Spaniards who want to take a week off without squandering too much of their paid vacation allowance. As you’d expect, crowds in the streets are thicker than usual, while the area’s arterial roads tend to get more than a little snarled up. The temporary ban is likely to make the whole area… well, just nicer.
Winter is also a period when Madrid’s air quality needs all the help it can get. Thanks to a seasonal inversion effect, Madrid’s plateau location helps trap fumes into a noxious greige-colored cap known locally as La Boina (“the beret”). Discouraging cars from central Madrid won’t just make the streets a lot more attractive to pedestrians. By keeping keys out of car ignitions, it could also ensure that city residents get to breathe a little more freely for a week.
That should make this week far more pleasant for Madrid residents, who will benefit from increased metro services to get them into town during the shutdown. But like a puppy given as a gift, the plan will have a long life beyond Christmas. The car-free week is a harbinger of further reductions to come. Madrid is planning to cut the number of car lanes along Gran Via, expanding sidewalks to take their place so that the roaring car canyon becomes a pleasant place to stroll. This makeover is due to arrive in summer 2017.
Meanwhile, new car parks are due to be constructed around the edge of the current semi-car-free zone, so it becomes easier for drivers to ditch their vehicles and switch to public transit as they descend on the dense, frequently knotty streets at Madrid’s heart.
The city plans to have a fleet of 2,000 clean electric buses on its roads by 2020 to absorb some of the escapees from private cars. And finally, there are further plans in the works to divert traffic away from central Madrid entirely, though these early-stage proposals still have a few more hoops to jump through before they’re made public. All this comes on the back of past temporary driving bans during winter pollution peaks, designed to soften the worst excesses of air pollution when La Boina is hanging especially heavily over the city. Slowly but surely, the city is getting people used to the idea of not driving into downtown, while also letting them see how much more pleasant and healthy the area is without cars when they actually get there.
By taking the softly, softly approach to cutting car use, Madrid may well be emulating Paris. The French capital’s total ban on cars on the Seine’s right bank was wisely preceded by closing the area in question to host a temporary summer beach. As locals got used to this seasonal closure, extending it into the autumn and thereafter became a far-narrower psychological chasm to jump across, even if reaction from authorities in the greater Paris region has been pretty combative. Madrid has a similar split to Paris’, between a left-leaning city government and a right-leaning one in the region immediately surrounding the city limits, so a similar stand-off between city and exurbs is not unthinkable.
Madrid has already successfully banished most cars from its center in the past—it began doing so for two days of its Mobility Week in September 2015. Moves like this aren’t entirely contested, of course. But by slowly introducing a less car-dependent city—as a seasonal treat rather than a gray bureaucratic edict—Madrid isn’t just pushing toward a cleaner future. It’s steadily building the consensus necessary to make sure that future is what most people in the city actually want.