How a city in Spain got rid of its cars

Pontevedra Mayor Miguel Anxo Fernández Lores has been reelected four times since he began turning streets over from cars to people. (Concello de Pontevedra)

PONTEVEDRA, Spain — It’s just a regular Wednesday morning in downtown Pontevedra, but the streets are so crowded with people that you might think a festival is going on. Everywhere you look there are pedestrians: walking their dogs, pushing baby strollers, heading to work, shopping or simply sitting and watching other people go by.

Watching the scene, it is hard to believe that not long ago, most of the space where people now walk was devoted to the movement and parking of cars. Or in the words of the mayor, Miguel Anxo Fernández Lores, that the city was a “car warehouse”. Today, from his office on the third floor of City Hall, he can hear people talking outside instead of engines and horns. “It’s amazing,” Lores says. “14,000 cars used to pass through this street every day.”

But it’s not just the streets near City Hall that have been transformed. According to the city administration’s numbers, motor traffic in Pontevedra’s historical centre has been reduced by an unbelievable 97 percent since 1999. Traffic is down 77 percent in the areas adjacent to the centre, and by 53 percent in the city as a whole.

As a result, quality of life in Pontevedra has drastically improved. The city hasn’t suffered a single traffic fatality since 2011. The air is cleaner and the city’s carbon dioxide emissions are significantly lower. A walk in the city speaks for itself: Children play outdoors, elders get around easily and the few cars that pass by — mostly delivery vans — drive cautiously.

People in Pontevedra are happy with these changes. In fact, they are so happy that Lores is currently serving his fifth consecutive term. The mayor’s good work is also recognized abroad. In recent years, the city has been piling up prizes and awards that the mayor proudly displays at a table in his office. It’s all proof that even small cities like Pontevedra can come up with big innovations that improve the lives of their people in palpable ways.

His secret can be summed up in a simple sentence that Lores slips into our conversation: “You only need a small amount of cars to make a city work.”

Political change

With 80,000 people, Pontevedra is located in Galicia, a region in the northwest of Spain known for its rainy weather, lush landscape and tasty seafood.

Pontevedra streets that used to be clogged with cars are now jammed with pedestrians. (Concello de Pontevedra) 

Like many Western cities, cars started to flood the streets of Pontevedra during the second half of the 20th century. By the end of the 1990s, about 52,000 vehicles circulated in the city every day.

Then, something happened. In 1999, a leftist political party with Lores at the head won second place in municipal elections. With the support of socialists who came out third, Lores became mayor. He was the first left-wing mayor in a city that had been ruled by conservatives since the return of democracy in Spain in 1978.

Hefty, talkative and self-confident, Lores has a reputation for being a man of the people. He worked as a doctor for many years before getting into politics. Talking in Galician, a regional language outlawed during Franco’s dictatorship, he speaks openly and curses often.

“People are not stupid,” says Lores. “Some people can’t stand you ideologically, but value that you’re doing things well.”

More than anything else, what the mayor has done well is returning streets to the people. It’s the basis of his support among Pontevedrians and the hallmark of his 18-year run as mayor. Lores and his key adviser in the city’s remodeling, César Mosquera, immediately got to work on it. “We took office on July 3rd, 1999,” Lores recalls. “And by August 6th, we’d already pedestrianized the historical centre.”

The historical centre was in dire straits at the end of the 1990s. Despite its abundance of medieval and renaissance architecture, it had become a hostile place, dirty and dangerous. Restoring it brought new life in. From there, new measures were progressively adopted around the city’s core, further displacing motor traffic to the periphery. And as cars left, people flourished.

Inverting the ‘pyramid’

Although Lores targeted cars as a scourge of the city, it would be an oversimplification to call his moves simply a “war on cars”.  Instead, the underlying idea was to tackle different urban issues — pollution, accessibility, security — through an integral plan. In fact, in most streets there are no physical barriers to keep the cars out. Vehicles making deliveries or locals heading to private garages can still circulate in most places.

“What we did is to create loops to keep people from driving through the city,” Lores explains. “If you enter by the south, you leave by the south.”

The goal of this strategy, which is complemented by severe parking restrictions in all of the central area, is to get rid of what Pontevedra officials call “unnecessary traffic”. This traffic includes vehicles that drive through the city instead of around it, and those searching for a place to park. While hourly street parking is not allowed in the central area, there are a few free street parking spots where anyone can leave the car for 15 minutes. On the other hand, free parking is available in garages at the city fringes, encouraging visitors to leave their cars a short walk away from the centre.

[See: After hosting ‘ecomobility’ festival, cars are back but less loved in Suwon]

As counter-intuitive as some of this may sound, these measures have actually improved the flow. According to city figures, those who need to go to the centre by car — to pick up an elder person or to drop baggage after a trip, for example — now spend less time in their cars, as there is no congestion and the temporary parking spots have a rapid turnover.

Many streets in Ponetevedra have all the space merged into a ‘single platform’. (Ignacio Amigo)

Another crucial point has been the change in transport priorities, Lores explains. “We inverted the pyramid,” he says, “leaving the pedestrians above, followed by bicycles and public transport, and with the private car at the bottom.”

While such ideas are increasingly in vogue today, they were less so when Lores and Mosquera began. Mosquera credits their thinking to, among others, Francesco Tonucci, the Italian theorist and author of the 1996 book “The City of Children”, which argued for restructuring cities to nurture their youngest residents. “There was an awakening of ecological awareness that envisioned cities with less pollution, less noise,” says Mosquera. “This was all in the air in the ‘90s.”

[See: Seeing Indian cities through the eyes of children]

Today, different types of street designs exist in Pontevedra. Where the pedestrianization process has been more intense, streets have no sidewalks and all the space is merged into what is called a “single platform”. Car traffic in these streets is severely restricted, but the few vehicles that need to drive in go slow and coexist peacefully with the crowds of pedestrians.

In other streets, the sidewalks have been expanded to fit at least two people walking in opposite directions with their umbrellas open — a must in a rainy region. Most of these streets have a single lane for motor vehicles, and all pedestrian crossings are elevated like speed bumps on steroids. This forces vehicles to reduce their speed, while also subconsciously sending drivers the message that their cars are invading a pedestrian area — and not the other way around. The elevated crosswalks also make it easier for older people, those in wheelchairs or anyone pushing a baby stroller to get around.

A key aspect of these street designs is that they make many common traffic infractions impossible. For example, there’s no such thing as double-parking when cars have only one lane in which to move. And thanks to the elevated pedestrian crossings, it would be difficult to exceed the citywide speed limit of 30 km/h (20 mph) even if you wanted to.

At the same time that driving is dissuaded, walking is encouraged. An interesting initiative in this regard is the “Metrominuto”, a city map that includes distances and approximate walking times between city points, mimicking the layout of subway charts. The idea was awarded the 2013 Intermodes prize, which described it as both “simple and ingenious”, and has been copied by cities such as Paris, London and Florence.

Being a compact city, most trips are within a 20-minute walk. To keep it this way, the city tries to put limits on suburban sprawl, promoting instead small businesses within the central area. “In every street we have our supermarket, our store, our hairdresser, our laundry, absolutely everything,” says Lores. “This way you can do everything you need without needing to leave.”

Winning over business owners

The benefits of all these changes are obvious now, but not everyone in Pontevedra was excited about restricting cars back in 1999.

Both Lores and Mosquera think that opposition to these kinds of projects is often overblown by the media and boosted by political interests. Lores recalls a public audience with 35 business owners to discuss the pedestrianization of a street. All but one supported the plan, but the next day journals voiced complaints from people that opposed the reform.

Pontevedra’s ‘Metrominuto’ walking map has been copied by many cities, including Paris, London and Florence.

“There’s a theory that says the commercial sector always opposes these kind of things. We argue that this is not true”, Lores says. “There can be opposition from a few people, but normally it’s for personal or political interests.”

Miguel Lago, director of an association representing businesses in the historical centre, admits there was some resistance at first, but says it was overcome with dialogue and negotiation. “They had to go shop-to-shop explaining their plan and negotiating the circumstances,” says Lago. He also notes that impacts varied by the type of business — bars and restaurants benefitted, for example, but retailers selling large items, such as appliance stores, had a harder time with it. Overall, he says, it’s been a boon for business.

The government had a clear set of goals, but was also flexible in phasing them in. For example, initially, business owners were allowed to park in some streets. As the model became more accepted, special parking privileges for business owners was revoked. Similarly, pickups and deliveries were initially allowed at any time of day but now are limited to certain times.

[See: Moscow makes over its streets with people in mind]

“In Pontevedra there wasn’t a single measure that wasn’t supported by neighbours and shopkeepers,” says Mosquera. “Without that support and acceptance, the process couldn’t have been so fast and successful.”

When I asked Mosquera if the Pontevedra model could be exported to other cities, he turned around my question: “Is it possible to keep cities, regardless of their size, in the current situation?” To him the answer is clearly no. “There can’t be unlimited, unrestricted and unconditioned traffic in the cities. We need to act.”

Lores agrees that cities must take action. But he cautions that Pontevedra’s plan can’t simply be copy-and-pasted into another city. “When you copy, you do things wrong, and maybe they don’t fit,” the mayor says. “You have to design a project for your city. Every city has to find its own way.”

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Ignacio Amigo is a Spanish freelance writer based in São Paulo. A former scientist, he now writes about science, technology and sustainability. Full bio

LEARNING FROM PONTEVEDRA

  • The city has reduced motor traffic in its historical centre by 97 percent since 1999, and by more than half elsewhere.
  • Streets are designed to eliminate through traffic, while parking restrictions encourage use of garages on the city fringes.
  • The changes have improved air quality and reduced traffic fatalities. 

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