(IMAGE: Madrid City Hall — CC BY)

Central Madrid: the naysayers were wrong about the impact of traffic restrictions in the Spanish capital

Who’d have thought it? After a three-month pilot scheme that has seen non-resident traffic restricted in a 472-hectare area of Central Madrid, the doom and gloom merchants’ predictions have proved unfounded: shops have not seen any fall off in trade and there has been no rise in air pollution levels. In short, the data shows that Madrid Central, as the initiative is called, has gone to plan.

The traffic restrictions have seen a 9.5% increase in trade in the area, reflected by the most accurate indicator: BBVA payment terminals. A significant, unbiased and verifiable sample of transactions in the area that silences the naysayers who, in contradiction of all previous experiences in other cities, predicted a major economic downturn. The evidence once again shows that restricting traffic in a certain urban area significantly improves local commerce.

As for air pollution, the critics predicted with absolute certainty that the restrictions would see levels rise in adjacent areas, worsening the overall situation. But once again, the data shows contradicts them. Air pollution levels in the center of Madrid fell (link in Spanish), as did those in the rest of the city, despite an unusually dry winter. The “border effect” foreseen by some critics of the measure and by ignorant or irresponsible politicians never happened (link in Spanish). The restrictions have worked, whichever way they’re measured and should be used as evidence that City Hall should continue them.

Another benefit of Madrid Central has been transparency in the figures reported by parkings, with all businesses required to account for vehicles that entered the area to service their establishments. As I’ve commented on these pages before, cities should be platforms, APIs that collate all activity: pollution, traffic, transportation, parking, etc., to enable the authorities to make the right decisions. In short, facts on the ground are what matter, not rabble rousing.

Reclaiming cities for people is a long overdue task, one that means reversing a decades-long error of planning according to the needs of cars and motorists. The next goal is to eradicate street parking, which will recover huge amounts of spaces for more reasonable uses such as special lanes for bicycles, scooters and the like, as well as for deliveries.

Restrictions are rarely vote winners for politicians. But on some occasions, improving our quality of life is the priority and as such they should be valued with the appropriate mentality and enough maturity to recognize, perhaps only in retrospect, that they were necessary.

The sooner we begin rethinking our cities and overcome our hostility toward urban planners trying to implement change that benefits everybody, the better for all.

(En español, aquí)