The “Car-free” City of Pontevedra

Translation: Þóra Sif Guðmundsdóttir

For the past few years, authorities in various cities across Europe have been taking action against pollution and global warming. Some cities have done so by limiting the use of cars, or in some cases banning them altogether.

The city of Pontevedra in Galicia, Spain, is one of those cities, and over the last twenty years automobile traffic there has decreased substantially. Today, car traffic is only allowed in a quarter of the city, and traffic that is considered the most vital, such as public transportation and deliveries, has priority. The results are clearly visible; carbon dioxide emissions have been reduced by 70% and the number of deaths due to car accidents has dropped significantly. There is nearly no traffic in the old part of the city, and car traffic has been reduced by 77% in the downtown area. Small businesses, which often struggle in Spain, are blossoming in Pontevedra. In addition, the population has increased by 12,000 residents in the past ten

Miguel Anxo Fernández Lores, mayor of Pontevedra for the past twenty years, is the one who started this positive development. In his first month as mayor, he was able to turn the whole of the old town into a 300,000 square meter pedestrian zone. In the 90s, before these changes, the conditions in that part of the city were very bad and marked by stagnation, pollution and drugs. The old town, which was not designed for car traffic, couldn’t handle the amount of people passing by on a daily basis, so people had nearly stopped walking there. In addition to limiting car traffic, parking was moved underground, and the space allocated to pedestrians and bicyclists was increased even further.

A change in lifestyle seems to have occurred among the inhabitants of the city, who now voluntarily choose to walk or bike from place to place and want to further limit car access to the city. Only one in three uses a car, 90% of the city’s inhabitants walk to the grocery store, and the same percentage of children walk to school. The lives of those living in Pontevedra seem to be centred around a car-free lifestyle, and city officials have released walking maps which indicate walking times from one place to another, similar to the way bus schedules often do.

These changes, however, were not well received initially, with the city’s inhabitants feeling like the government was depriving them of their civil rights. But Lores has pointed out that driving a car is a privilege.

Other cities, such as Madrid, Oslo and Paris, have taken steps in the same direction. The mayor of Madrid has said that she intends to ban diesel cars in the city before the year 2025, but the first step in her plan is to make one of the city’s main streets, Gran Via, completely car-free, which she intends to do before May of this year. Madrid has already banned the use of private cars in the city’s centre for those who do not live there.

In 2015 a project began in Oslo to limit car traffic in the city’s centre, and at the beginning of this year they limited it even further.

Authorities in Paris also plan on banning diesel cars and have begun working on plans to limit general car traffic in the city. Cars manufactured before 1997 have been banned from the city centre since 2016, and many neighbourhoods participate in “car-free Sundays”, which are affiliated with the project Paris Respire, or Paris Breathes.

Lores, the mayor of Pontevedra, has participated in conferences and held “master classes” in Paris, as the massive changes he has been able to make have made the city a model for others in the search for solutions to climate change. The mayor of Paris plans on using the Pontevedra design for selected areas of the French capital. The advantages of this development are countless and indisputable, and because of it the city of Pontevedra has received many environmental awards, including from the United Nations.