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.
A new mayor vowed to bring vehicles back to the city center. The strong citizen backlash suggests that European cities’ car bans are not, in fact, in peril.
Madrid’s new administration might already be regretting its promise to cancel the city center’s car ban.
When the city’s current center-right/right/extreme-right coalition came to power following May 26 elections, one of its first promises was to scrap the laws that had seen almost all private cars disappear from inner Madrid—not just from side streets, but from major roads, too.
As it turns out, the measure isn’t as popular as politicians supposed. Now, after a whirlwind of protest, they’re backpedaling. Madrid City Hall is pausing its plans to repeal the law, and it’s likely they’ll be abandoned for good.
This development is arguably significant far beyond Madrid’s boundaries. When the city’s repeal of the ban was announced, some saw as a possible first domino in a chain of anti-green backlashes that would see car bans start to collapse across Europe. Less than two months later, however, the repeal’s public and legal rejection has actually shown the opposite: that there is widespread support for green urban policies even when the political pendulum swings right.
The fight started almost as soon as the election result was announced. As CityLab previously reported, Madrid’s new mayor José Luis Martinez-Alameda announced that repealing the car ban was a priority. Isabel Diaz-Ayuso, the new president of the Madrid region (akin to a state governor), went so far as to declare that late-night traffic jams were part of the city’s identity. When the city actually suspended the fines that enforce the no-car zone, however, the public backlash was swift.
Thousands took to the streets at the end of June to protest the about-face—10,000 people according to the Madrid state government, 60,000 according to organizers—something that has previously never happened so soon in the term of any Madrid mayor. Along with the march came critical coverage in the New York Times—a significant, chastening step for an administration which, regardless of who’s in power, is rarely discussed in much detail outside Spain.
Compounding the bad impression this made on locals was widely circulated footage of the city removing blooming planters to convert them back into parking spaces. Finally, but most devastatingly, came news that a local court judge had blocked the city from canceling the ban. Barring cars from the city center was essential, the court said, “to improve the quality of the air that the citizens of Madrid breathe, which has a direct impact on health.” Since then, two further court judgements have ruled in favor of retaining the car ban as a public health protection. It’s hard to think of a municipal measure more roundly and swiftly defeated on so many fronts.
The administration has not officially given up on repealing some aspect of the ban, but this episode has given the new leaders’ tenure a tough start. It could be that the new coalition misidentified support for the ban as partisan and party-affiliated. While the ban came from a left-wing administration, it has actually enjoyed widespread support. Figures on the ban’s first few months in fact showed it doing exactly what it was supposed to: slashing pollution without damaging retail sales.
This, along with popular support for it, forced the new administration to make some rather odd, unsubstantiated statements to criticize it. Pablo Casado, the national leader of the right-wing Popular Party, said it had created more pollution, even as data suggested the opposite. Madrid state president Diaz-Ayuso said it “killed the Rastro [Madrid’s flea market] and increased crime”—an account that was promptly contradicted by Rastro market traders, who insisted their trade was strong and healthy, and that Madrid was still a very safe city.
Madrid’s administration has years to recover from the fallout, and it may well bounce back—but its climbdown here is telling. Car bans like Madrid’s offer clear, tangible improvements to citizens’ health and quality of life, and have largely gained the popular support needed to make them sustainable long-term. Authorities who seek to scrap such plans thus have to make particularly persuasive arguments, ones that need to be far more watertight than they would have been, say, a decade ago. The problem is that, in cities with proper public transit, such arguments are few or non-existent. As Madrid’s test cast suggests, European car bans in some form are likely here to stay.