How a city in Spain got rid of its cars

How did Pontevedra transform itself from a car warehouse to a pedestrian haven? By “inverting the pyramid” on who rules the road—putting people above, followed by bikes and public transport, and with private cars at the bottom.

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 per cent since 1999. Traffic is down 77 per cent in the areas adjacent to the centre, and by 53 per cent 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.

You only need a small amount of cars to make a city work.

Miguel Anxo Fernández Lores, mayor, Pontevedra, Spain

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 recognised 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.

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 pedestrianised 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.

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.”

This story was published with permission from Citiscope, a non-profit news outlet that covers innovations in cities. More at Citiscope.org.

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