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Madrid Drivers Encouraged to Ditch Dirty Diesel Cars for Clean Electric Bikes

Solar powered smart parking meter in MadridThe Spanish capital Madrid has started charging drivers to park according to how polluting their cars are, while introducing a rental system for electric bikes, to encourage a switch to more sustainable transport.

Right: a new solar powered smart parking meter in Madrid.

The price a motorist pays to park is now based on a scale related to the car's engine type and the year of its manufacture. Electric cars park free, hybrids pay 20% less than standard to park, while diesel-engined cars built before 2001 face a surcharge of 20%.

The system is the first of its kind in the world, Mayor Ana Botella says in a press release. "Vehicles with lower emissions will be subsidized, and the most polluting will be punished," she said.

Madrid began introducing smart meters in 2006 and now has about 4,000 installed. It is now capitalizing on their technical capabilities. Besides setting rates based on the age and model of a car, the meters may be used to discourage parking in congested areas. By linking with sensors that determine how many parking spaces are available in the area, they can be used to impose a surcharge for parking on streets where most spaces are already taken.

Madrid has a poor record on air quality, routinely breaching European Union air-quality standards, especially for nitrogen dioxide from motor vehicle emissions. The EU-legislated maximum safe limit for NO2 is 40 micrograms (mcg) per cubic meter, and at times Madrid's NO2 levels have exceeded this by a factor of five.

City officials are hoping that owners of the most-polluting vehicles, when faced with higher parking fees, will opt to drive less and take public transportation more often.

"We thought it would be fair if the cars that pollute more pay more, and compensate those who use more efficient vehicles," said Elisa Barahona, director general of sustainability of Madrid City Council's Environment and Mobility Department. "Particularly for those who have cars that pollute, we hope that having to pay more will make people think twice before using them."

Not everyone is convinced this will work. Mariano González of Ecologists in Action, a local environmental group, believes that the system would unfairly penalize drivers of older cars. "Maybe you bought a large vehicle this year, say a sports utility vehicle. It could actually have higher emissions than an older, smaller car," he said.

The majority of drivers, said the city, will see little difference in the price of parking, which will range between €.66 and €3.29 an hour. But an estimated one in four drivers, theoretically those behind the wheels of the most polluting cars in the city, will see the cost of parking rise. "Particularly for those who have cars that pollute, we hope that having to pay more will make people think twice before using them," said Elisa Barahona.

Smart parking meter

Electric bike rental scheme

The city is introducing positive iniatives at the same time to encourage a switch to better transport modes, including energy-efficient buses and a bike sharing scheme. Like Barcelona, Seville, Valencia, Zaragoza, and Vitoria, Madrid now has a bike sharing program, with a difference: the bicycles are electric.

The scheme is called BiciMad, a name that is a portmanteau of bicicleta (bicycle) and Madrid. Even when the double meaning in English was pointed out to the organizers, they continued with the name. And, by all reports, upon its launch Madrid did go a little cycle mad, helped by a fake Twitter account that was an improvement on the official one. In the first 24 hours more than a thousand subscribers signed up, and there would have been more had the system not collapsed.

The system is welcome in Madrid, following many popular demands for more space for bikes in recent years.

As with a similar scheme in San Sebastian, the bike model, designed and built by the Spanish company BonoPark, is specially designed for sharing programs. Robust, it has an integrated battery which lasts for about 18 hours or about 70 kilometers, allowing the bikes to recharge at night.

An electric bike designed and built by the Spanish company BonoPark for sharing programs

The bulky handlebar displays all the instructions and contains the controls for the start/stop, lights, and electric assistance level. It also displays the battery charge state. The bike weighs in at around 22 kilograms (48 pounds) and cuts out the electric motor at 18 km/h (11 mph).

Bonopark also manages the stands and management of the system. In total, there will be 1,560 bicycles and 3,120 stands shared at 123 stations. The bicycles will be available 24/7, all year round.

Bicimad Madrid

Pricing begins with an annual fee of 25 euros (15 for public transport subscribers), with users paying 50 euro cents for the first 30 minutes and 60 additional cents for each half-hour of use. After the second hour the price rises to 4 euros per hour.

The annual fee is slightly lower than in Paris (29 euros) or Barcelona (47 euros), but in these cities the first 30 minutes are free, making Madrid more expensive after just one month of daily use, and perhaps more expensive than taking public transport. Yet these bikes are electric.

It remains to be seen whether the combination of charging for polluting and offering these bikes will improve the quality of life in Spain's busy capital.