Madrid and unsustainability

Today, December 29, will see Madrid City Hall introduce unprecedented measures restricting the movement of private cars based on their license plate number. This move is both logical and expected: air pollution levels in the capital depend on the climate. This is a city where it doesn’t rain for long periods of time, and if there is no wind either, then levels soar and measures have to be taken.

The difference from previous years is that the current city administration takes the threat air pollution poses seriously. In the past we have seen contamination levels similar or higher to those at the moment, but the people in power at the time chose to ignore the problem. Recent measures to restrict traffic in the city center and to impose 70 km/h speed limits are proving unpopular, but they are completely necessary, and City Hall is to be praised for its political courage in imposing them.

Restricting the movement of vehicles based on whether their number plate ends in an odd or even number may not be the best solution, but it is one of the few that can be taken simply and immediately. We all know that this alone isn’t going to solve the problem in the long term: the truth is that in their current form, our cities are now completely unsustainable. As long as 98% of the vehicles in use are propelled by fossil fuels, air pollution will be a problem.

At the same time, such restrictions, even if they do not solve the problem in the medium or long term, do at least raise awareness about the problem. As restrictions become more common, more people may lean toward alternative solutions, such as using public transport, car sharing, or electric mobility. Obviously, if the result of these restrictions is that those who can afford to simply buy a second vehicle, we will have made the problem worse, so it is important to accompany these measures with restrictions on parking or by closing certain areas off to traffic. Eliminating street parking would free 20% of the space between sidewalks for other uses (bicycles, deliveries, or picking up and dropping off passengers. Drivers use up 23 out of every 100 kilometers they travel looking for somewhere to park, and 37% in rush hour. Banning parking in the street would also eliminate 34% of emissions.

The big enemy here is the privately owned vehicle, so the only long-term solution is to improve public transport and provide other alternatives. As things stand, the only way to get people to stop using their cars is through effective deterrents.

We have now reached a point where politicians have to find the courage to tell voters that there is a problem, and that the only way to solve it in the short term is for them to sacrifice their comfort, something that most people see as a right, but one that opposes the rights of the majority to enjoy a reasonably healthy environment.

Criticism that Madrid City Hall should give more warning about traffic restrictions are absurd: the readings of the capital’s air pollution monitoring stations cannot be anticipated, and when they go into the red, they demand immediate action. We have to start seeing these restrictions as part of a bigger problem and getting our heads round the idea of using alternative transport to our cars. The urban model we have known for decades has reached its sustainability ceiling, and is no longer viable, as is Henry Ford’s dream of every citizen owning a car. Within two years at the most, the use of autonomous electric vehicles to move around cities will cost the same as owning a vehicle, and will trigger major changes in how we think about car ownership, which will in turn affect the economy.

According to the International Transport Forum, high capacity public transport and the right mix of shared vehicles can provide the same number of trips with just 3% of vehicles. What’s more, such systems distribute traffic more democratically throughout the city.

Nevertheless, very few cities in the world are anticipating the effects of this disruptive reality, putting them at risk of failing to capitalize on the advantages.

We need more restrictions (zoning, parking, traffic, speed, emissions, types of vehicles, etc.), combined with greater availability of clean and shared mobility options if we are to trigger the change in mindset we need: we all known that forcing drivers to circulate at a maximum of 70 km/h on beltways isn’t really about reducing air pollution, but it does make us aware that driving is no longer as convenient as we are used to it being. In other words, we need more and more restrictions on using private cars.

In cities such as Paris or London, which have opted for much tougher, more unpopular policies than Madrid, such as tolls or additional taxes on road users, people have stopped protesting and these restrictions are regarded as completely normal and totally necessary. So, more restrictions please, more collective awareness and less individual convenience.

Madrid urgently needs to rethink the use of private cars as much as anywhere, and at last it seems we have a City Hall prepared to do just that.

(En español, aquí)