The city pioneering Europe’s car-free future – POLITICO

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Every year, thousands of people are killed in road accidents in cities across Europe. None of these deaths occur in Pontevedra.

Over the past two decades, cars have been responsible for less than a dozen deaths in the town of 85,000 in northwestern Spain; the last recorded death took place in 2011, when an 81-year-old man was hit by a delivery van.

The explanation for Pontevedra’s record is simple: it banned cars from most of the city in 1999.

“We decided to redesign the city for people instead of cars and we have been reaping the rewards ever since,” said Pontevedra Mayor Miguel Anxo Fernández Lores, who took office with car-free city projects he over 20 years ago.

“Not only have we not had a single road-related death in over a decade, but air pollution has been reduced by 67% and our overall quality of life in the city has improved significantly,” he said.

As cities seek to meet ambitious climate goals, many are considering or already implementing measures to phase out cars to both reduce emissions and protect residents from pollution.

During the pandemic, cities like London, Paris and Brussels have built new networks of cycle paths and made more space for pedestrians. Between 2019 and 2022, the number of low emission zones – limiting access to certain types of polluting traffic – in European cities increased by 40%, according to the Clean Cities Campaign. And in 2020, more than 960 EU cities took part in International car free daywith dozens of policies later instituting policies banning cars from city centers once a month.

Yet in the majority of these places, cars are deeply embedded in city life – and in many cases, including Brussels, huge parts of the city have been made especially for the car.

Undoing this kind of urban planning is a challenge, but Fernández Lores insists it must not be a losing proposition in the elections.

“Adopting these kinds of measures first requires political courage,” said Fernández Lores, a member of the left-wing regionalist Bloque Nacionalista Galego, re-elected for the sixth times in 2019. “But the fear of losing the election shouldn’t condition the actions of responsible politicians, and it seems that designing the city for the people may actually be electorally good enough.”

Cars go out, people come in

A stopping point on the Pilgrimage of the Way of Saint James Located between the Galician port city of Vigo and the regional capital of Santiago, Pontevedra has always been a bustling commercial center in northwestern Spain.

Pontevedra banned cars from most of the city in 1999 | Photo of the city of Pontevedra

In the late 1990s, an average of 80,000 cars passed through the city center daily. It records an average of 140 road accidents with serious injuries each year.

“This city was essentially a giant warehouse for cars, full of private vehicles that were filling up our public space, generating noise and emissions, and preventing our citizens – especially children and the elderly – from having real autonomy at home. where they lived,” said Fernández Lores, who won Pontevedra’s mayoral campaign in 1999 by promising to reclaim the streets.

The changes he introduced transformed Pontevedra. The 30,000 square meters of the city the historic center has been pedestrianized and all on-street parking has been removed. Transit traffic was rerouted to avoid the center altogether, and commuters heading into the city were directed to car parks on its outskirts.

While cars could still access the center for drop-offs or pick-ups, they were subject to a 30-kilometer-per-hour speed limit and caps on how long they could stand still.

It took time to get residents on board, recalled the mayor. “It’s normal to fear changes, especially during the first two years of a project, when the transformation is still ongoing and people don’t fully see the end benefits.”

The local business community in particular was divided over the project, with some fearing that blocking access to cars would discourage customers from shopping in town.

“Some understood it immediately: I had a bookseller who told me that he supported pedestrianization because in all his years of activity he had never seen a car come into his store to buy a book,” the mayor said with a laugh. “But to do something like that, you have to talk to everyone, listen to their concerns and work to explain the positives.”

Fernández Lores said he used to invoke the figure of billionaire Amancio Ortega, the Galician owner of the Zara clothing chain, a revered figure in the region.

“I pointed out that Zara stores are usually on pedestrianized shopping streets, not four-lane ring roads,” he said. “I think many naysayers reconsidered when I asked them if they thought they knew more about the business than Amancio Ortega.”

The initial opposition disappeared once local businesses saw their business increase with pedestrianization. “Instead of going to shopping malls on the outskirts, people shop in the city center: the city is our shopping center.”

Fernández Lores insists he is not anti-car, but that motor vehicles largely belong outside of cities. Instead, he advocates for urban policies that promote more local living in which commuting can be done. on foot or by bike.

The 30,000 square meter historic center of Pontevedra has been pedestrianized and all street parking has been removed | Image via iStock

“The city should not be seen as a road, but as a space of coexistence,” he said.

listening mode

More than two decades after Pontevedra ditched cars, towns across the bloc are beginning to institute similar measures.

For a growing number of mayors, cars have become “the villains of history”, said Barbara Stoll, director of the Clean Cities Campaign.

They are responding to the “double whammy” of the climate emergency and a health crisis caused by air pollution by restricting access to polluting cars or completely blocking traffic – measures that Stoll says will become increasingly popular across the continent as they also make cities more attractive and improve the quality of life.

The notoriously car-throttled Brussels region is among those planning to undergo drastic changes. A new mobility plan, called good moveaims to reduce overall car traffic by 24% by the end of the decade.

Under the scheme, the city ​​of brussels is about to adopt many of the same measures implemented in Pontevedra: Transit traffic will be redirected to the small device; in some parts of the city, motor vehicle access will only be allowed to residents; and the number of parking spaces in the city – which currently exceeds the number of its inhabitants – will be reduced.

“If you look at the numbers, only 20-25% of the people who live or come to work here use cars, but the impact of the car on the city is nonetheless incredible,” said Bart Dhondt, alderman for mobility in the city. town. from Brussels. “With Good Move, we create small pedestrian zones, car-free zones, zones where access by car is limited, always with the objective of giving people more space.”

Unsurprisingly, concerns about the impact of reduced access to cars – on business, on personal convenience – remain the same. According to Dhondt, in Brussels much of the pushback has come from shop owners worried about a loss of revenue. His team doubled down on communication with the business community to get them on board, he said.

“I went so far as to give people my personal number so they could raise concerns, and we listened and changed parts of the plan when people showed us other ways to achieve the same goal. on a particular street,” he says.

“We will continue to listen as we need to be pragmatic and honest enough to deal with any side effects that may arise,” he added.

But at the end of the day, the trend is clear, Dhont said: EU cities are all moving in the same direction – towards more sustainable urban landscapes with fewer cars.

“In Brussels, that means safer streets with cleaner air for us, for our children,” he said. “People don’t want to live in cities designed for cars: they want cities for people.”

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