Imagine a place where there is a significantly less number of cars. You can wake up in the morning after hearing the twittering of a bird. You don’t have to shout out loud to make yourself comprehensible. You can easily fall asleep and there is no constant honking disturbing your precious sleep. No longer do any metallic sounds or guttural motor screeches tear through the air – it’s just you and the silence. Doesn’t all of this sound amazing? Yes, this paradise is real and it is present in Pontevedra, a city in Spain, which has put such restrictions on traffic that life is starting to look pollution-free and less congested. It is probably the only place you can hear human voices and the twittering of birds in the middle of the day.
It was not always like this. The mayor says how when he first stepped in the office, about 14,000 cars used to pass through the streets each day. There were more cars in the city than there were people. It was really hectic and it was already turning the city into a dead one. The pollution was rising and there was a lot of congestions. Traffic accidents were common too. Plus, the older people were finding it difficult to live in this congested condition. Cars were cramping up the public spaces.
According to the mayor, Miguel Anxo Fernández Lores, if you own a car, you do not have the right to take up public space. The head of infrastructures, César Mosquera agrees with the mayor. The car is private property and it should not occupy public property the way it does.
So, after fighting the opposition for 12 years, Lores has implemented a major change in the city. He is pedestrianizing 300,000 sq. m. of the medieval center of the place and is paving the streets with granite flagstones. The policy is to bring back public spaces to the residents. Street parking was abolished as it causes a lot of congestion. They shut down all the surface car parks and now they have made it all underground. Traffic lights are also taken away and roundabouts have been installed which has resulted in the extension of the car-free zone from the old city to the 18th century area. In the outer areas, the traffic calming methods like lowering the speed limit to 30 km/h have been implemented.
According to the local architect, Rogelio Carballo Soler, the city is a perfect place for any kind of pedestrianization process to take place. One can cross the entire city within 25 minutes. Cars seem to be like a luxury. The benefits of the scheme are already showing. In Pontevedra, about 30 people had died due to accidents between year 1996 and 2006. In the later 10 years, three people died, and now, it has gone down to zero in 2009. Carbon dioxide emission has gone down by 70%. People are now walking or using a cycle to go to places instead of a car which they would have used previously. Plus, the mayor has also blocked permission to build huge shopping malls in the area which has resulted in the growth of a small business economy.
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However, all this had not gone very smoothly. There was opposition, especially from the people who did not want to be told about the places where they can or cannot drive. They considered it more of a right rather than a privilege. However, Lores has provided enough flexibilities. For marriages, the bridegroom and the bride can ride a car while going through a car-free zone, but the others have to walk. Similar rules apply for funerals.
The main problems that people are facing are the congestion in the outer areas where cars are allowed and limited parking spots. There are a lot of traffic jams in those areas and there is no public transport that a person can take to reach the center. Plus, the city is prone to heavy rain and so people would like to have parking spots when they are taking their kids to school or grabbing their breakfast. However, everyone claims that they have not felt the dire need to use their cars, and that they haven’t seen such a beautiful place either. So, it seems that by tweaking the policies a little bit, Lores can actually satisfy the people too.
Plus, this major change did not receive any external financial aid. It was a cheap undertaking and Lores did whatever he could by using local resources. So, it seems that fighting for the environment does not really have to be expensive. And it could even be made beautiful. We just need a brave heart and the right intention to do it.
IMAGE CREDIT: Concello de Pontevedra