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.
Starting in November, the city will make clear that downtown streets are not for drivers.
The days when cars could drive unhindered through central Madrid are coming to a close.
Following an announcement this week, the Spanish capital confirmed that, starting in November, all non-resident vehicles will be barred from a zone that covers the entirety of Madrid’s center. The only vehicles that will be allowed in this zone are cars that belong to residents who live there, zero-emissions delivery vehicles, taxis, and public transit. Even on a continent where many cities are scaling back car access, the plan is drastic. While much of central Madrid consists of narrow streets that were never suitable to motor vehicles in the first place, this central zone also includes broad avenues such as Gran Via, and wide squares that have been islands in a sea of surging traffic for decades. The plan is thus not just about making busy central streets more pleasant, but about creating a situation where people simply no longer think of bringing their cars downtown.
This might come as a shock to some drivers, but the wind has been blowing this way for more than a decade. Madrid set up the first of what it calls Residential Priority Zones in 2005, in the historic, densely packed Las Letras neighborhood. Since then, a modest checkerboard of three other similar zones have been installed across central Madrid. The new area will be a sort of all-encompassing zone that abolishes once and for all the role of downtown streets as through-routes across the city.
To get people used to the idea, implementation of the non-local car ban will be staggered. In November, manual controls by police around the zone’s edge will begin. Cars that are breaching the new rules will be warned of the fine they face in the future—€90 per occurrence—without actually being charged then. In January, a fully automated system with cameras will be put in place, and from February, the €90 will be actively enforced against any cars found breaking the rules.
Madrid may be blazing a trail on this front, but it’s unlikely to stay at the forefront for long. Despite some resistance and wrangling, Oslo still plans to go car free by 2019. Many European cities contain large car-free zones, with Copenhagen, Brussels, and Munich taking the top three places in terms of square feet. Meanwhile Paris has taken a different but equally bold step by pedestrianizing major through-routes across the city. London, long held up as a pioneer for its 2003 introduction of a central congestion charge, will pedestrianize its main shopping street, from which private cars are already banned. Taken together, these moves don’t necessarily signal the end of urban car use in Europe, but it’s impossible not to see the direction which the wind is blowing.
But will Madrid’s plan work? It’s possible that banning traffic through the city’s heart might increase congestion in the avenue ring that marks its border. Then again, blocking car access to the core might also reduce the reasons for cars to drive onto this inner ring in the first place, while simultaneously making central Madrid far more pleasant and user friendly. Certainly, if locals genuinely dislike the transformation, they’ll have a chance to voice their disapproval: municipal elections are coming up on May 26th, 2019, just a few months after the zone fully kicks in.