Madrid re-designs 25 of the cities busiest streets for walking rather than driving

 Goodbye Car Lanes: Madrid Wants To Take Back Streets For Pedestrians

BY ADELE PETERS on Fast CoExist, 2012

Cities used to think the solution to heavy traffic was more roads, whether that came in the form of new freeways or extra lanes. But it’s more and more common now to go in the other direction and take lanes away. In Madrid, according to a new general plan that will likely be approved early next year, 24 of the city’s busiest streets are going to be redesigned for walking instead of cars.

The streets will link up with urban parks in an “environmental network” that gives top priority to pedestrians, followed by public transportation, then bikes, and finally cars. As some of the car lanes go away in the process, two-thirds of that space will go to people on foot.

It’s not the first time Madrid has reclaimed pavement from cars; some streets off the main city square, like Calle del Arenal, are almost completely car-free. A couple of years ago, the city even tore down a freeway, rebuilding it underground so the space could be turned into a park.

But local pedestrian advocates say that there’s a long way to go. “Madrid is having real progress in mobility policy, a great change, but very slow,” says Pablo Barco, who works at a regional organization called Red de Ciudades que Caminan (“The Network of Walking Cities”). One of the problems isn’t just cars but the fact that sidewalks themselves are actually becoming more dangerous; more people are starting to bike on sidewalks when they want to avoid traffic, and sometimes the sidewalk is even taken up by bike and motorcycle parking.

There’s also the fact that sidewalk cafes are getting a little out of control in the city. “Another recent problem is the indiscriminate proliferation of bar and cafe terraces for smokers on the sidewalk, in a clear and unprecedented process of privatization of public space,” say Mateus Porto and Verónica Martínez, both architects and urban planners who are active members of a local pedestrian advocacy group A PIE. “That results in a loss of character for pedestrian space: a place to walk, but also to stay, play, talk, and interact.”

While they say the new plan can help, the experts point out that it’s not fully clear that the city will follow through–some of the other goals for traffic in the plan conflict with the idea of taking lanes away. And some current plans for pedestrian streets, under an air quality policy, have been held up because funding isn’t coming. But they also say there’s a lot that the city could do for pedestrians even before the streets get a major overhaul.

“In neighborhoods, you can do a lot with small interventions,” say Porto and Martínez. “We believe that regardless of what the General Plan says about the future of the city, many things can be done today, if there is political will.”

One example, Barco says, is just getting drivers to slow down. “Some Spanish cities, like Vitoria-Gasteiz, Cordoba, Mostoles or Pontevedra are making excellent progress returning the city to pedestrians even in a time of economic crisis–especially slowing to 30 kilometers an hour,” he explains. “This is the way it should continue in Madrid.”

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world’s largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

Madrid is known as one of Europe’s more polluted capitals. Locals describe the daily smog–three quarters of which comes from cars–as a “boina” (or beret), because it hangs like a hat over the city.

But now city officials are fighting back with an innovative new measure: differential pollution pricing. From next month, if you want to park a dirtier vehicle in the city center, it will cost more than if you drive an electric hybrid.

The city is introducing “SER Intelligente” parking meters that change prices depending on a vehicle’s nitrogen dioxide levels, engine type, and the zone the meter is located in. For example, drivers of large diesel cars could pay 20% more than a gasoline car with a lower emissions profile. Full electric cars go free.

The SER is an instrument to deter people from the use of private vehicles, above all in the center of the city, and boost the use of public transport,” says a spokesperson at Madrid city hall.

The age of the vehicle isn’t necessarily important, but rather the level of nitrogen dioxide emissions. A gasoline vehicle from 2006 could pay the same rate as a diesel vehicle from 2012. To get a price, drivers enter their license-plate number. The meter then looks up a database, and makes an assessment.

Madrid claims the scheme is a world-first, though other cities also have pricing based on pollution levels. For example, London charges low-emission vehicles nothing to enter its Congestion Charge zone. Berlin has a “low emissions” zone that’s only open to certain vehicle types. Madrid plans to introduce the SER Intelligente meters in the city center to start with, before deciding whether to expand the idea further afield.