Madrid’s ban on polluting vehicles cuts traffic by 32%

The new rules will restrict more than 20 percent of the vehicles that currently enter the city center by 2022

Photo: EPA Several vehicles drive on Gran Via street in Madrid, Spain.

Last Friday, Madrid’s tough new vehicle emissions controls went into effect, which resulted in a rapid drop in traffic by nearly 32 percent in some parts of the city, paving the way for Madrid to become an unprecedented pollution pioneer in Europe.

The exact drop in traffic actually varied between different areas in the zone. One area, San Bernardo, saw just a modest reduction of just over 5%, while Gran Vía Street saw the highest reduction, which reached up to 31.8%. Although some media outlets claim that traffic continues to be heavy around the perimeter of the city's restricted downtown, the Spanish El Pais insists that even there, traffic levels were down by between 1 and 2 percent. The lack of congestion also had benefits for public transport, with bus speeds on one highway increasing by 14 percent.

The ban, which is part of the plan, known as Madrid Central, is an attempt to lower the city’s nitrogen dioxide levels, which have exceeded European limits since 2010 and are thought to cause around 3,000 premature deaths per year, according to one study. Furthermore, the goal is to put people - rather than the internal combustion engine - at the heart of transport policy.

The exact vehicles affected by the ban vary depending on their fuel type, year of manufacture, and how they’re used. Petrol and diesel cars registered before 2000 and 2006, respectively, will be banned, while hybrid vehicles will be allowed to enter the area and park for a maximum of two hours. The ban, however, doesn't affect residents living in the controlled area. Petrol and diesel taxis will also continue to be allowed in the area until 2022. Yet, the restrictions are expected to impact around 20 percent of the vehicles that currently enter the city center.

Thus, Madrid’s plan has been criticised by political opponents and industry representatives who argue that people drive older, more polluting vehicles because they can’t afford to buy new ones, which as a result unfairly penalise lower-income drivers. The president of the Association of Self-employed Lorry Drivers Antonio Villaverde, for example, insists that the city could experience supply shortages as lorry drivers struggle to purchase new compliant vehicles. Exceptions for residents may also limit the ban’s effectiveness. In addition, the opposition conservative Popular Party plans to challenge the new rules in court.

The leftwing city council of Manuela Carmena, the mayor of Madrid, however argues that the initiative is as much about public health as public transport.

“Air quality has been breaching acceptable levels for 10 years and people in the city are being exposed to air that has clear effects on their health, especially those who are most vulnerable, such as children and older people,” said Ines Sabanes, councillor for the environment and mobility. “There’s research that shows clear links between pollution peaks and hospital admissions. It has a very clear effect on health – on the number of deaths and premature births.”

Madrid is not the first European city to explore the use of vehicle bans in the wake of air pollution being called the “biggest environmental risk” to public health in Europe, even though it's definitely the bolder one. At the end of 2016, the mayors of Paris, Athens and Mexico City joined Madrid in announcing plans to take diesel cars and vans off their roads by 2025, and in May this year Hamburg became the first German city to ban some older diesel vehicles from two of its main roads.
Meanwhile, Oslo, which had planned on making its city centre car-free, is now embarked on a drive to ensure it has the “fewest possible vehicles”. And in January last year Paris launched a colour-coded sticker scheme to ban all diesel cars registered between 1997 and 2000 between 8am and 8pm. Nevertheless, in 2019, London is expected to introduce an “Ultra Low Emissions Zone” that will see most petrol cars produced before 2005 banned along with most diesel cars produced before 2015.

Similar articles