Christmas traffic restrictions — Madrid City Hall

The inevitable shift toward new urban transport models

The controversial measures introduced by Madrid City Hall to reduce traffic in the center of the Spanish capital over the holiday season have generated no small amount of controversy.

Whether you live in the city or the outskirts, or are spending a few days visiting, we all consider the city as our own, a common resource that we can use at our convenience, meaning that any restriction is going to be unpopular.

The traffic situation in Madrid, as with most other large cities, is now completely unsustainable. During dry spells, the city is covered with a huge layer of visible contamination that is reflected in much higher levels of air pollution than is permitted by law.

Manuela Carmena must take credit for being the first mayor of Madrid to take action in this regard. For years, City Hall has ignored the problem, even going to such lengths as placing air contamination monitors in less-exposed places or simply falsifying the data. For years now, millions of people in Madrid have been breathing heavily contaminated air. The city was already one of the most polluted cities in Europe in the 1970s, and this situation has continued to deteriorate as per capita income has been rising and citizens have spent it on cars, installed more heating and air conditioning, etc. Everybody agrees something needs to be done, but for some reason, when measures are proposed, we all take a short-term view, rejecting measures if they seem to make life difficult.

Manuela Carmena’s vision for the city is shared by many people: cleaner air, with priority for people, not cars. But any measures have to be thought through: people cannot be expected to sell their cars from one day to the next because the future of the city is car-free, but we need to understand that that is where we are headed.

In the city of the future, people simply do not need to own a car. The automotive industry itself has already taken this on board: people will soon stop buying vehicles, and instead will see them as a service. Vehicles will belong to fleets that will rent them out, and they will be composed of electric vehicles or propelled by clean energies, and they will be self driving. This is no longer a science fiction view of the future: we are talking about less than a decade, because the technology is already here.

What is required now is collective effort to change our mindset. In the city of the future, there are no vehicles parked on the street. Imagine your street without any parked vehicles, with all that space to walk, to sit outside and enjoy a coffee, with no loading and unloading from lorries and nobody being dropped off.The street is a common good that has been privatized by a lot of vehicle owners who consider they have a right to occupy it, and that is going to stop.

The same applies to certain types of vehicles. The elephant in the room is that internal combustion vehicles should have been banned years ago. When we talk about the measures planned in Madrid, Paris or Mexico City to ban diesel vehicles from 2025 we all know that they should have been taken off the roads a long time ago. The technology to power electric vehicles has long been sufficient for more than 90% of what most people need, and what’s more, we all know that the arguments about generating how generating the power for electric cars is also polluting is baloney. As a society, we should have long ago accepted that the situation is completely unsustainable, that we needed to stop making fossil fuel-powered vehicles… instead, we have chosen keep on talking about moratoria 10 or 15 years down the road.

The measures Manuela Carmena is imposing in the Spanish capital are designed to make people see a reality they can no longer ignore: people who live in the city center and who own more vehicles than they can park in their garage, need to start thinking about getting rid of them. As a city, we need to draw up mobility projects that take into account all the options available to accelerate the transition from the automotive era to the era of transport as a service.

Whether it is public transportation, self-driving buses, the metro, trams, bicycles, Uber, Cabify, Car2go or whatever, it is essential to see Madrid as a mobility laboratory, a place where the job of the authorities is to help improve urban mobility. This will require adjustment and will be questioned, but we will get used to it.

Manuela Carmena’s measures should not be seen as extraordinary and due to the arrival of Christmas, but as something necessary all year round, as part of a process of changing our urban landscape. We must get used to thinking that we will have restrictions, that there will be more and more areas where we cannot circulate unless you are taking your car to your garage, and that an electric vehicle will have more and more advantages, and that parking will be increasingly difficult in order to discourage private vehicle use as much as possible.

This is like tobacco: no one it was possible to reduce consumption, and it has taken some time, but now, after a few years, non-smokers are rarely exposed to tobacco smoke. And that is how it should be, even if it creates discomfort for some.

What we need to value in our politicians is their vision for the future, plans that go beyond their mandate. I didn’t vote for Manuela Carmena, but I greatly value her commitment to ideas such as sustainability and the need to change our transport policies. The current measures will undoubtedly cause annoyance, but they will help us to become aware of the need for that change. If it were down to me, these measures would be even more drastic and rapidly implemented, despite the political flak it would attract.

We need to get beyond the few hassles this will cause. We need to start getting used to thinking about a new model, one that in reality has already arrived and that we are going to have to live with. As a rule, we resist change, but in this case there really is no alternative; after all, we’re talking about our future.

(En español, aquí)