Pontevedra, a small town in northwest Spain, did something unthinkable in today’s world – they banned all cars except for the absolutely essential ones from its town center.
The usual soundtrack of the city has been replaced by the tweeting of birds and the sound of human voices. There are no revving engines or honking horns, no metallic snarl of motorbikes or the roar of people trying to make themselves heard above the din.
In the local elections in 1999, Miguel Anxo Ferandez Lores proposed to the residents to make their city accessible to everyone especially to the most vulnerable – handicapped people, senior citizens, and children.
“Before I became a mayor, 14,000 cars pass along this street every day. More cars passed through the city in a day than there are people living here.”
Lores’ philosophy is simple: owning a car doesn’t give you the right to occupy the public space.
Within a month of his election, Lores had “pedestrianized” the city’s historic center. That meant an almost total ban on private vehicles, cars, truck, buses, taxis, everything. It covered all 300,000 square meters of the city.
They also went further by removing all street parking and closing surface parking lots. They replaced traffic lights with roundabouts, reduced the speed limit in the areas around the center where cars were still allowed, built underground parking garages on the edges, and created almost 1,700 free parking spots on the edge of town.
The ban was initially argued against by many saying that it was a terrible idea, but almost 20 years later, the experiment is ongoing, and most in town call it a tremendous success. It has also led to numerous awards and a general acceptance.
The benefits are obvious. On the same streets where 30 people died in traffic accidents from 1996 to 2006, only three died in the subsequent ten years and none since 2009. Carbon dioxide emissions are down nearly 70%, and while many town centers in the region have lost population, Pontevedra has gained some 12,000 new residents.
However, there are a few exceptions to the rule.
“If someone wants to get married in the car-free zone, the bride and groom can come in a car, but everyone else walks,” Lores clarified. “Same with funeral.”
Locals prefer the lack of smog and the ability to just be able to get out and walk without risking their lives. Local businesses are also said to be performing better than before the ban.
Racquep Garciá said:
“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.”