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Pontevedra, Spain Increases Downtown Livability by Reducing Vehicle Access

Pedestrians and a street performer in Pontevedra, SpainIt's a city where the car is unobtrusive, a city with neither noise nor fumes, where children can play in the street and people with reduced mobility can access businesses and services easily. Is it a utopia? No, it is the urban model developed by Pontevedra, a city of 83,000 inhabitants located in the Northwest of Spain. In 1999, when Miguel Anxo Fernandez Lores presented himself in local elections, his program was simple. He proposed to the residents to make their city accessible to everyone, especially to the most vulnerable: handicapped people, senior citizens, and children. It was a decision guided by the European directive that is set to establish the equal rights and opportunities of all people to have access to transportation, roadways, and buildings beginning in January 2015. "More and more people are living in cities: all the better for making it livable. For this, it is necessary for public space to not be aggressive," says the Mayor, member of the social democratic party BNG.

A Fossilized Urban Area

At the end of the 90s, Pontevedra was paralyzed by traffic. More than 27,000 cars commuted every day past the Spain Plaza, in the heart of the historic downtown. Getting around on foot was a nightmare between the noise, pollution, the risk of being run over, and not being able to use sidewalks that had become parking spaces. "The old city was not designed for this traffic. The pedestrians fled, cyclists disappeared, and the center became a desert. The city had become a heap of cars." Yet, for this doctor, walking is the most natural means of mobility over distances less than three kilometers. It is also a means of battling obesity and cardio-vascular problems. "Pedestrian mobility is a fundamental element for transportation. It is not a complementary mode," he insists.

A Social Model

In Pontevedra, this policy, which puts the individual at the heart of its concerns, forms a social model. "Public space belongs to everyone. When we walk, we are all equal." Also, to increase the quality of life, huge projects were undertaken to make the city pedestrian friendly, such as banning transit in the downtown. Its access was maintained, but was strongly reduced for motor vehicles. Roundabouts were put in place, while speed limits were set at 20 to 30 km/h. Lastly, the length of parking was limited to fifteen and thirty minutes as to not penalize economic activity.Pedestrians in Pontevedra, SpainMoreover, parking in the street was suppressed in favor of underground parking lots and deterrent lots located about ten minutes on foot from the center. In all, the city possesses a 13,000 parking space capacity. To ensure that these new rules are observed, the number of police was bolstered, in order to enforce but also to explain the new mobility concepts. "Respecting the law is fundamental," assures the Mayor. Therefore, all instances of forbidden parking are penalized with a 200 euro ticket. The fee is only 100 euros if paid immediately. To increase the collection of tickets, police possess personal digital assistants to ensure that no one can get away with not paying. "We have a 96% collection rate," says Daniel Macenelle Diaz, a local Police Chief. Money is falling into the city's coffers.

Political Courage

In parallel with this new traffic and parking plan, public space was entirely redone. In the center, sidewalks were replaced in favor of streets without any obstacles. Moreover, benches were installed, lighting was improved, and green spaces and playgrounds were raised. In roads allowing for cars, pedestrian space was doubled. The idea was that two people with open umbrellas would be able to pass by each other without trouble. The municipality has also acted to increase economic incentives. "I made a deal with residents. I told them that if they returned to live downtown they would find all the business and services they needed close by. Also, I do not authorize the installation of any large buildings in the periphery," explains the Mayor. "To succeed in improving the quality of life in cities, it is enough to have the will and political courage."

A Humanized City

This urban reform has not gone without troubles. Especially due to works that were troublesome. "We didn't have the time to experiment with our concept," says public official Cesar Mosqueira Lourenzo. "If we reclaim a public space and pedestrians do not take to it immediately, automobile pressure comes back." Also, the first phase in working concerned the historic center. A zone of 3.5 square kilometers home to 51,000 inhabitants was expanded. Today this compact city extends over 4.5 square kilometers and counts 65,000 residents. "To encourage people to return to live in the city, it was necessary to improve the quality of life, reduce traffic, and create a human city. By acting quickly, we have stopped urban sprawl." These efforts bore fruit, since 2013 traffic has been reduced by 69% in the central part of the city, and by 90% in the heart of downtown. Pollution has decreased by 61%. The number of accidents involving police went from 1,203 in 2000 to 484 in 2014. In regards to mobility, 70% of traveling was done on foot, 22% in car, 6% on bike, 3% on public transportation.

Metrominuto, the Pedestrian Network

In order to convince inhabitants to get around on foot, a map with travel distances and routes was published. The network of routes is called Metrominuto, and was based on the model of a metro map. Moreover, the local government created Pasominuto, a transportation program more explicitly based on the health benefits of walking. Through twenty different walking itineraries, this map determines the number of steps and calories spent according to the distance covered. Finally a third pillar is in the process of being made. It will be a map gathering the bike paths found in a twenty kilometer radius around the city. "According to the OMS, it is necessary to take 10,000 steps a day," says the mayor. It is a message that, even if it was heard by the large majority of his administrators is still resisted by some. Although 10-15% of the population has not accepted these policies, Miguel Anxo Fernandez Lores has been reelected three times since 1999. He has his eyes set on a fifth term in 2015.

Do such measures seem extreme, or should local governments seek to completely rethink mobility? Does your city restrict vehicle access to its downtown? Do you think it should?

Original article, originally published in French, here.

Credits: Images and data linked to sources.