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Air Quality

Published on October 25th, 2018 | by Steve Hanley

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Life In A City Without Cars

October 25th, 2018 by  


It may seem odd at a time when the whole world seems focused on electric cars to talk about life in a city without cars of any kind.  When Miguel Anxo Fernández Lores became the mayor of Pontevedra, a city in northwestern Spain, in 1999, he immediately set about deleting cars and motorbikes from the downtown area. Looking out the the window of his office, he tells The Guardian, “Before I became mayor 14,000 cars passed along this street every day. More cars passed through the city in a day than there are people living here.”

car population in Pontevedra

Pontevedra Before and After. Credit: Concello de Pontevedra

Back then he says, “The historical center was dead. There were a lot of drugs, it was full of cars — it was a marginal zone. It was a city in decline, polluted, and there were a lot of traffic accidents. It was stagnant. Most people who had a chance to leave did so. At first we thought of improving traffic conditions but couldn’t come up with a workable plan. Instead, we decided to take back the public space for the residents and to do this we decided to get rid of cars.”

César Mosquera, the city’s head of infrastructure, echoes the mayor’s ideas perfectly. “How can it be that the elderly or children aren’t able to use the street because of cars?” How can it be that private property — the car — occupies the public space?” Instead, the city eliminated all parking spaces in the downtown area and paved over streets with granite blocks to make pedestrian malls. Now people park on the outskirts and walk into the city or take public transportation.

The no-car program has paid big dividends for the city. Carbon dioxide emissions in the city center are down 70%. Nearly three-fourths of the trips that used to be made by car are now done on foot or bicycle. Pontevedra has added 12,000 new residents while surrounding towns are shrinking. Small businesses are thriving in an area where the big box stores and shopping malls are nonexistent. Mayor Lores emphasizes that driving is a privilege, not a right — an attitude that would find little favor with many Americans. Cars are permitted in the city for special occasions — weddings and funerals, for instance.

Instead of a subway map, a guide to walking times.

City resident Raquel García tells The Guardian, “I’ve lived in Madrid and many other places and for me this is paradise. Even if it’s raining, I walk everywhere. And the same shopkeepers who complain are the ones who have survived in spite of the crisis. It’s also a great place to have kids.” Pontevedra has a population of about 80,000. “The city is the perfect size for pedestrianisation,” says local architect Rogelio Carballo Soler. “You can cross the entire city in 25 minutes. There are things you could criticize, but there’s nothing that would make you reject this model.”

Pontevedra today

Pontevedra as it looks today. Credit: Luis Pereiro Gomez

All of the changes to the downtown area were financed locally without assistance from regional or national resources. “In effect, these are everyday public works that have been carried out in the context of a global project, but they cost the same or even less,” says Lores. “We haven’t undertaken grand projects. We’ve done what was within our grasp.”

Oh, sure, there are some complaints. You can’t please all the people all the time. More parking on the periphery would be nice. Better public transportation from those exterior parking lots to the city center would also be appreciated. But compared to the way things used to be in Pontevedra? Few people would want to go back to the way things were before Mayor Lores took over.

Perhaps more than anything else, the difference in attitude toward cars between Mayor Lores and someone like Robert Moses, the architect who made cars the central feature of his urban planning models, is instructive. How dare people think they have a right to invade public spaces with their emissions spewing gasoline- and diesel-powered monsters? Why, the very idea is absurd — isn’t it?


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About the Author

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Rhode Island and anywhere else the Singularity may take him. His muse is Charles Kuralt -- "I see the road ahead is turning. I wonder what's around the bend?" You can follow him on Google + and on Twitter.



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