Cars in Barcelona
Albert Gea/Reuters

Get ready for Europe’s biggest car ban yet.

Cities across Europe are placing ever-stricter controls on cars and pollution, so it’d be easy to mistake Barcelona’s latest regulation as just another car ban.

Under a new plan announced this week, starting in 2019, cars built before 1997 and vans and trucks built before 1994 will not be allowed to drive in the city on weekdays. Barcelona has also promised to set up an observatory to monitor air pollution and its effects on public health, while its region is considering a new fuel tax to fund public transit as well as a congestion charge zone.

If some of these measures sound familiar, that’s because they are. Paris introduced a similar weekday ban on older, more polluting vehicles this January. It also has a longstanding body, Airparif, that monitors air quality and shares with Madrid, Athens, and Mexico City the common goal of banning all diesel vehicles by 2025. The idea of a congestion charge, meanwhile, comes from London.

What makes Barcelona’s scheme different, however, is scale. Paris’s city hall only has jurisdiction over the city’s historic core, which contains 2.2 million of Greater Paris’s 10.5 million people. London’s congestion charge zone likewise covers only the city center.

Barcelona’s ban on older cars, by contrast, will cover most of its metro area. The laws will be introduced across a 40-municipality region that spreads far beyond the historic city, including over 4.3 million of the Barcelona conurbation’s 5 million residents. That will make it the most comprehensive ban on older vehicles that any European city has put in the law books so far. The city estimates that it could pull 106,000 cars (7 percent of the city’s total fleet) and 22,000 vans off the roads. Meanwhile that congestion charge would cover 40 municipalities—the entirety of the city’s wider metro area.

This could have a major effect on particulate and NO2 emissions, which the region has pledged to reduce by 30 percent over the next 15 years. It’s also going to aggravate a larger proportion of the population than the more limited plans carried out in other cities. While some of those older cars might have left circulation by 2019 anyway, the potential pool of 128,000 drivers forced to give up their vehicles is no small number.

And the hardship is likely to affect a lower-income group: With the minor exception of vintage car owners, people who drive cars that have reached their late teens typically aren’t the richest people on the roads.

Aware of this, the region is providing a welcome sweetener for people giving up older cars. Anyone relinquishing an older, high-polluting vehicle will be eligible for a three-year pass for the region’s transit (provided they commit to not buying a similarly polluting vehicle during the same period). The plan can also count on a degree of popular support due to grim recent statistics, which estimate that 3,500 people are dying prematurely thanks to air pollution in the city every year. Josep Rull, chief of the Land and Sustainability Office at the Catalonian government, has gone on record to state that older cars contribute heavily to this problem: The European average car produced before 1997 emits 11.6 times more NO2 than a vehicle built to contemporary standards.

There’s another highly significant fact couched in that last statement. The new laws’ advocates don’t just come from Barcelona’s left-leaning city hall, they are also to be found in the wider regional government, which has considerable political influence in Spain’s devolved system of government.

This matters. In Paris, plans to remove older cars risk turning into a stand-off between the urban core and its more car-dependent suburbs, with each side’s needs being played off each other. As such, Paris is mirroring similar battles between city and periphery that have played out in recent decades from Warsaw to Toronto. If Barcelona can create policies that are truly accepted and advocated across the entire region, the city and its hinterland could truly be blazing a trail.

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