Pontevedra: The City That Subdued the Automobile
Source: El País
Published: 1 Dec 2018
Twenty years ago, a city in the northwest corner of the Iberian Peninsula began to move in the opposite direction from the rest of the planet. Pontevedra, a Galician city of 82,000 inhabitants, at the time just as overwhelmed as elsewhere by cars, noise, pollution and double parking, launched a plan to pedestrianize and limit vehicle access to the historic center, and accepted tooth and nail by a good part of the residents and merchants. Today, with vehicles only allowed in a quarter of the locality, residents have gone from protests to asking City Hall to expand the restrictions.
The residents of Pontevedra have discovered that it is possible to escape the asphalt jungle. The 80,000 vehicles that used to travel each day through the urban center in the late 1990s have been reduced to 7,000, and 1.3 million square meters of streets have been returned to pedestrians. The government of then- and current mayor Miguel Anxo Fernández Lores, of the Galicia Nationalist Block, which launched the project in 1999, says that pedestrianization by itself doesn’t work, and that it must be accompanied by a comprehensive plan to organize traffic for the entire city. “Here we give priority to necessary traffic: access to garages, loading and unloading, public transport, and the individual services of private vehicles,” explains the councilor.
To get rid of the cars going around the block in the hopes of the miracle of finding an available parking space, street parking — both free and metered — is not permitted in the center. There are only a few places reserved for short stops of 15 minutes. At the major access points to the city, traffic signs guide drivers towards the ring roads, preventing vehicles that enter from the North from driving through the center to reach the South. And to calm the speeding tendencies of drivers, the entire city is a 30 kilometers-per-hour zone; traffic lights are replaced by traffic circles; pedestrian crossings are elevated; and the traffic lanes are narrower.
“We are the only city in the world where pedestrians go on crosswalks without looking both ways because the vehicles always stop,” says Verísimo Pazos, vice president of the Federation of Castelao Neighbors’ Associations. The inhabitants of Pontevedra have realized that in a city like theirs, the most direct route is usually made by walking. They use a map nicknamed the Metrominuto that, with a format similar to what some cities use for their subways, gives information about the walking times from point A to point B. According to data from City Hall, legs are the preferred mode of transport for 90% of residents to go shopping, and 80% of children to go to school.
The local government stresses that with all of these measures, traffic flow has improved, and in the city center, contrary to other cities, population and economic activity have increased. Miguel Lago is a merchant and resident of the center and was one who viewed with skepticism the traffic restrictions put in place 20 years ago. He lives on Benito Corbal Street, which is “like the Gran Vía in Madrid,” and today he considers himself privileged. “Customers walk to stores; they only drive to the McDonald’s drive-through,” says Lago, who is also president of the organization that groups together the businesses in the Monumental district of the city. “A business is valued for the number of people who walk by. For us, e-commerce is a problem, not pedestrianization.”
City Hall calculates that carbon dioxide emissions have fallen in Pontevedra by 67%, equivalent to 500 kilograms per inhabitant per year. According to the report “Air Quality in Spain in 2016” by Ecologists in Action, the city maintains annual averages of all the criteria (particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, ozone and sulfur dioxide) that are below the safe limits determined by the World Health Organization (WHO). And the residents live a more healthy life. The mayor boasts: “We encourage people to walk between 7,000 and 10,000 steps per day, as the WHO recommends.” He is also a doctor by profession.